Teen ennui and a wide-ranging American tableau makes The Sweet East relatable, but the film’s star Talia Ryder makes it undeniably watchable. Longtime cinematographer Sean Price Williams (Good Time, Her Smell) makes his directorial debut with this unorthodox road trip movie, giving the film a kind of forgotten indie flair with its grain, grit and growling sound design.
THE SWEET EAST ★★★ (3/4 stars)
Gregg Araki-adjacent with admittedly less of an active, focused punch than the likes of The Living End or The Doom Generation, The Sweet East takes on the united archetypes of America—in the northern half of its eastern seaboard, at least. Ryder (who had her indie breakthrough in 2020’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always) stars as Lillian, an apathetic and aloof high school senior who drifts apart from her class on their Washington, D.C. trip and ends up on a prolonged journey northward. She encounters an ultimately aimless anarchist (Earl Cave), a secret-Nazi liberal arts professor (Simon Rex), New York creatives who play at progressivism (Ayo Edebiri and Jeremy O. Harris), a soulful international (Jacob Elordi) and a surprisingly conservative New Age cult member (Rish Shah). It all combines to make for quite the adventure, enjoyably uncanny if overly broad.
If you’re looking for incisive political critiques, you won’t get them here. The film takes an episodic format, each character on screen for just a section of the movie. People stay in the story long enough to make their points and be the butt of some jokes, but never long enough to overstay their welcome. Lillian drifts from person to person and place to place, getting swept up for a brief moment before moving on with her life.
The one exception lies in Simon Rex’s Lawrence, who Lillian meets at after wandering into a secretive white nationalist get together. She gives him a fake name and asks to stay with him under false pretenses; he obliges, and for an indeterminate amount of time, the two cohabitate. Lillian gladly mooches off this weirdo, whose racialized, radicalized code of honor keeps him from acting on his more dastardly impulses, making for an odd, semi-subversive Lolita-esque dynamic. It’s a unique episode in The Sweet East’s saga, laying out a kind of survivalist ambivalence without truly exploring it.
While Rex plays a slightly more subdued stereotype (and really nails the creepy condescension of a far-right poetry professor), the other ensemble members gladly give the proceedings a pop. Edebiri continues her hot streak, playing an indie film director whose monologues about her lofty ideas may very well last longer than her movie’s actual run time. The actress’ mile-a-minute delivery (matched by Harris in their scenes together) sweeps the audience up just as much as Lillian. These funnier moments do give way to a surprisingly violent segment of the film, making for a bit of a strange swing but not an entirely unwelcome one.
Ryder’s performance as Lillian anchors the whole thing, as it would be fairly easy for a film about a high school senior exploring the country to go adrift. Meeting the oddities she encounters with raised eyebrows, bemused expressions and a few quick fibs, she’s believably resourceful. It can be hard to make an ostensible audience surrogate character engaging and enjoyable to watch, but the young actress captures your attention from her first frame.
When Lillian inevitably returns to her small South Carolina home towards the end of The Sweet East, months or years may have passed. Her family missed her, her friends and classmates largely moved on without her, and she’s back where she started with all of the knowledge and experience in the world. It’s a vague end to a largely vague movie, but Lillian’s journey matters far more than her ultimate destination.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.