An easy bit of advice to give to any filmmaker who tries, whether with journalistic integrity or well-meaning folksy soapboxery, to make a film about our contemporary political moment: don’t. It’s easy enough advice to follow, and it frees the advice-ee from the label of cringe that can only come from the same culture that had initially welcomed, begged, for content of the now. Already, the subcultures of yesteryear have metastasized into something stranger and even more ephemeral in this, and the mere public naming of any new political group is enough to destroy it as if it were borne of a curse.
The Sweet East, the debut feature of veteran cinematographer Sean Price Williams, does not follow this advice. Thankfully, there is no soapbox in sight. Instead, the characters representing our various political moments mold themselves to more ancient sources, like Shakespearean villeins or the many ghosts of history. They form an American landscape void of values and full of snake oil, traversed by normies whose curiosity could get them killed.
The normie in question here is Lillian (Talia Ryder), whose anodyne class trip to Washington, D. C. immediately halts thanks to a Pizzagate conspirator’s viable threats. Lillian is whisked from her classmates by strangers modeled after antifa, who, like all the groups here, promise that they uniquely have Lillian’s best interests in mind until their values give way to more petty concerns. Key among these users and abusers of Lillian is Simon Rex’s fascist Edgar Allan Poe scholar, Lawrence, whose true danger lies beneath his veneer of cold, “trad” academia, even once barking at Lillian that one cannot just make certain claims without good scholarship. He brings her to New York City, where Lillian falls in with a filmmaking duo (Jeremy O. Harris and Ayo Edebiri) and the film’s lead actor (Jacob Elordi). The process repeats throughout the east coast as a road movie, an Odyssean journey, a riff on Alice in Wonderland, or perhaps an anti-Pilgrim’s Progress where confusion replaces spiritual development.
Frontloading with tons of pop culture and cinephile miscellany and esoterica, the film could easily have lost itself in games of “spot the D. W. Griffith reference” here and “catch Nick Cave’s kid” there. Thankfully, each of these references take a backseat to the constantly nerve-wracking vibes each political group gives off. The promise of violence finally erupts in a shootout that plays as dramatic yet opts for visual gags befitting a Scary Movie sequel — a compliment. That’s the tone of Lillian’s (likely named for Griffith favorite Lillian Gish) journey: that these American weirdos are worth taking seriously, but not too seriously.
Williams, as DP, opts for his usual ‘70s verité style of camerawork, switching from classical compositions to shallow-focus zooms during dramatic moments. There’s a particular sort of Kodak color grade that washes over the entire picture that’s reminiscent of high-grade stock footage from a bygone era, which, though never distracting, does hint that this may already be a world that’s long passed. The budget here isn’t quite big enough for the team to acquire the rights to a punk-ethos soundtrack, but Paul Grimstad’s score (complete with what sounds like a mouth harp during a rather appropriate scene) sets a mood of cascading tension as Lillian cleverly navigates her way out of danger.
Though rapscallion film critic Nick Pinkerton, the screenwriter of The Sweet East, pens a rather cynical screed against the limited factional options of 21st-century American culture, there are nuances and caveats aplenty. Not all of his middle fingers carry the same stature: the Nazis here are clearly the worst and most violent compared to, say, the filmmakers or the raving Islamists, even as Rex’s Lawrence turns up the charm by admitting to “being afflicted with enough vainglory already,” defending the artistic devices in D. W. Griffith’s The Avenging Conscience (though perhaps loving the unlovable parts of Griffith’s past), and chiding Lillian for being “grossly reductive,” unbefitting of “scholarship” for her recollecting his labeling someone a Jew. That said, this is still not a film that would pedantically lay out the gradations of its characters’ morality, nor would it make make grandiose political harrumphs, not even “fuck it all.” The Sweet East treats America as a freak show where you can stop, move on, join it, love it, or hate it, but you can never go home.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 21.5.