“The Sweet East” Confusingly Great

An under the radar art house film leaves the audience bewildered, mystified
“The Sweet East” Confusingly Great

Amidst the buzz of the movie awards seasons and the box office boom of 2023, as movies like “Oppenheimer” and “Barbie” proved that movies can both be critically good and financially viable, one movie has managed to fly under the radar. “The Sweet East” by first time director Sean Price Williams is chalk full of characteristics of hit independent films like its stellar cast, stylistic filmmaking and timely political messaging. This Indie movie has everything most movie goers could ask for, but has yet to be properly appreciated by the film community. This is extremely unfortunate as it has a ton of heart and is wholly original and should be checked out by any fans of indie and art house films. “The Sweet East” is sure to be a cult classic in the near future.

What truly makes this movie special is how it plays with your emotions and perspective upon the characters. It makes you care about a flawed main character and at the same time care for the flawed individuals that the main character, Lillian, ends up screwing over in the end. The writing is so well done in this movie, and it purposely creates confusion among the audience.

Similarly the movie creates another layer of confusing feelings through its extremely unique style. “The Sweet East” has a grainy filter on the entire time with frequent camera glare which gives it an extremely dream-like quality. At one point in the movie Lillian looks through a pair of binoculars and sees a cartoon through the lenses for no apparent reason. The movie does things like this regularly creating a totally unique style. The movie also uses sound to its advantage using a dreamy soundtrack mixed in with heavy machine sounds to play with the audience’s head. The movie has an extremely whimsical nature, making the heavy nature of some of its content like a scene where a prominent character’s head gets blown off in close-up detail seem like an afterthought. All of these elements are done on purpose and perfectly complement the rest of the movie.

This movie also plays hard and fast with political references and makes sure to serialize the current political climate of the US. Lillian spends time with an Antifa group, a Neo Nazi, and a Islamic terrorist group. Characters make reference to a “stolen election” and frequently bring up they’re different opinions on race and religion. In the beginning of Lillian’s adventure she gets help up in a pizza shop where a crazed man played by Andy Milinakis is shooting up the restaurant because he claims it is a secret child trafficking dungeon, a clear reference to pizza gate. This movie never truly claims a side of the political spectrum and instead chooses to make fun of everything.

This Sweet East follows an Ohio rust belt high school trip to Washington D.C. focusing on one student, Lillian, as she escapes her rowdy classmates and goes on an Alice in Wonderland-esque adventure through a burlesque northeast landscape. 

Lilian is played by the rising star, Talia Ryder. This is Ryder’s first true leading role coming from smaller Netflix supporting roles in movies such as “Hello, Goodbye and Everything in Between” and “Do Revenge.” She also starred in Olivia Rodgrigo’s music video for her song “Deja Vu.” Ryder is the daughter of actress Wynona Ryder, but she has managed to carve a name for herself in the film industry.

Ryder gives a class act performance, creating one of the most likable unlikable characters I have ever seen. The character of Lillian is not a nice person, she lies and manipulates those around her, and ruins the lives of those who take care of her. Despite this, the audience can still find themselves rooting for the protagonist mainly due to the actress playing her. Lillian actually barely talks in the movie, instead we see Ryder’s performance through how she reacts and corresponds with the supporting cast which she does with a lot of subtlety and builds the character really well without a whole lot of dialogue.

 One memorable scene that highlights Ryder’s talent is during the opening credits as she sings an original song “Evening Mirror” in a bathroom right before her adventure starts. Although the movie has no other musical scenes, this portion lends to the ethereal feeling that the director is going for. The lyrics are similarly confusing and surreal and perfectly starts the movie.

As the character of Lillian goes through her various exploits she meets and interacts with a whole slew of supporting characters. She starts off the movie with her fellow classmates until she escapes them with a punk rock stranger named Caleb portrayed in a memorable performance by actor Earl Cave. 

Caleb takes her to his artist commune where he reveals he is plotting an Antifa-like raid on a local clan meeting in which Lilian eventually joins. While that might seem confusing, that is basically what happens in the movie with little to no explanation. The whole sequence is shot in panning shots with quick edits, a ramping soundtrack and flashing lights creating a confounding feeling for the audience putting them in the shoes of the main character as she goes on her completely random adventure. Throughout the movie Lillian meets and spends time with different people like Caleb as she interacts with an eclectic and diverse cast of characters.

One of the most memorable and stand out characters of the movie is that of Lawrence played by acclaimed actor Simon Rex. Rex gained notoriety through his performance in Sean Baker’s 2021 movie, “Red Rocket,” in which Rex enjoyed critical praise for his acting. In “The Sweet East,” Rex plays a neo nazi poetry professor who takes Lillian in after they meet at the clan meeting that Lillian accidentally stumbles upon. The character of Lawrence is highly complicated and plays with the audience’s emotions. Yes he is a neo nazi, but the movie puts that fact in the background in order to showcase how him and Lillian’s relationship develops. Lawrence goes through multiple long winded monologues throughout his screen time teaching Lillian about highly nuanced topics like poetry and his takes on politics, he rarely gives Lillian the chance to speak but their relationship still works in winning over the audience in liking the two characters. 

The movie also explores the idea of Lawrence and Lillian in a romantic relationship; it’s clear that Lawrence is interested in Lillian romantically but he knows that they could never be together mainly due to Lillian’s reservations about it. When the two were planning a trip to New York, Lawrence made a point of telling Lillian that they are staying in two separate rooms as he would “never” with Lillian saying that that is her favorite part of Lawrence. This relationship is written so well, the audience is always guessing how their association will end, eventually Lillian discovers a bag full of cash in Lawrence’s hotel room, taking it and leaving Lawrence for good. 

The audience is left confused in how they should feel about Lillian’s betrayal, on one hand Lawrence is not a good person, he is a Neo Nazi and most of his ideologies are rooted in hate, but on the other hand, the movie ignores this and tries to make him a likable character, leaving the audience feeling bad for him as Lillian leaves him to his own devices.

After leaving Lawrence, Lillian is cast in a movie directed by two directors played by breakout star Ayo Edibiri and Jacob O. Harris, her co-star is Jacob Elordi. Edibiris’ character is revealed to be romantically interested in Lillian which Lillian does not reciprocate. Every character that Lillian interacts with seems to end up falling in love with her, including Lawrence who at this point is looking for her and his money. Eventually Lawrence finds Lilian at her movie set, killing Elordis’ character and other members of the movie. Lillian flees and is housed in a terrorist training commune which she eventually escapes and returns home where her family discusses a recent terrorist attack. 

Her time on the movie set reveals things about Lillian. She shows little to no sympathy for ruining her new friends project and for the killings that happened. After being sheltered in the commune she is extremely rude to the person trying to help her and eventually leaves him without warning, just like she did to Lawrence. Yes the people who look after her live faulty lives, but the film’s writing makes the audience wrestle with their own feelings toward these flawed characters.

Although I feel as “The Sweet East ” has been criminally overlooked by the movie community, I do trust that its amazing characteristics will lead to later success in its run. The movie’s entirely new style mixed with an all star cast of budding stars and all too relevant subject matter makes this movie interesting and extremely enticing. “The Sweet East” might seem confusing and random at times but by the end of it, the viewer finds the whole thing coming together in a satisfying and well done ending.

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