Sean Price Williams' debut feature is an eccentric and experimental road movie, with standout turns from Talia Ryder and Simon Rex
Screened as part of the Director’s Fortnight strand at this year's Cannes Film Festival, The Sweet East marks the directorial debut of acclaimed cinematographer Sean Price Williams and the screenwriting debut for film journalist Nick Pinkerton, who co-wrote the script alongside his director. On a school trip to Washington, D.C, we meet Lillian (Talia Ryder from Never Rarely Sometimes Always), and her far more rowdy classmates, who are self-documenting their antics through camcorder-style clips.
After the opening credits have concluded (complete with surprisingly catchy original song), Lillian is separated from the rest of the group when a gunman walks into the blacklight illuminated pizza parlour where they're hunkered down for the evening. She narrowly escapes through the parlour’s mysterious back tunnels, vacating the city with a group of anarchists and beginning an impromptu East Coast road trip with a stay in their grimy communal house.
Along the way, Lillian meets a host of wacky caricatures of the American population, the film's distinct chapters headed by a memorable line of dialogue proclaimed by the person or group she finds herself tagging along with. As Lillian traverses the country at random, the film's wider – and often humorous – appeal stems from the way that she is transformed over the runtime, each encounter revealing new characteristics and slowly lifting her initially guarded nature.
Talia Ryder cements her rising star status with a portrayal of the naive yet calculated protagonist. Her ability to conjure chemistry with each of her scene partners offers a dazzling showcase for her talent and range, while an ensemble of young talent – many of whom have burst onto the scene in recent years, including The Bear’s Ayo Edebiri, Euphoria’s Jacob Elordi and Ms. Marvel’s Rish Shah – are all given ample room to shine. And as white supremacist Lawrence, Simon Rex (last seen in Red Rocket) once again succeeds in bringing a surprising degree of humanity and depth to a person who is morally heinous.
Aside from the unconventional methods used in camera, The Sweet East also leans into creative experimentation using a cacophony of other mediums, from animation to miniature models, ensuring a truly eccentric viewing experience. In similar fashion, the narrative remains thrillingly unpredictable at all times, leaving us mystified as to who or what could be around the next corner. It all comes together to cement The Sweet East as a zany – yet at times painfully real – depiction of modern America.
The Sweet East was screened as part of the Cannes Film Festival 2023. A UK release date is yet to be announced.Where to watch