Whirling Girl: Review of Sean Price Williams’s “The Sweet East” (2023)

A shot of a nervous-looking Talia Ryder in Sean Price Williams's "The Sweet East" (2023).

Here is an interesting, if haphazard, debut from Sean Price Williams, script courtesy of noted film writer Nick Pinkerton. Is The Sweet East a bildungsroman? Is it a picaresque? Many (including the filmmakers themselves) have attached these labels to the film, but if they are true, then to its credit the film resists conventional approaches. The Sweet East is unafraid to play with form, and this is clear from the get-go: a tender post-sex scene between two young lovers (one of them Talia Ryder’s Lillian, our protagonist) with an almost Cassavetes feel transitions to jump-cuts between the iPhones of several dirty-mouthed, bird-flipping students on a school trip to D.C. Then, in the middle of this raucous grungy indie opening, Lillian seems to notice the camera cramped alongside her in a squalid karaoke bar bathroom and suddenly, forlornly, sings right to it. Are we watching a musical now?

What follows is a journey along the wilds (urban, rural, cultural, emotional, etc.) of the American eastern seaboard as Lillian attempts to improvise a personality that’s commensurate with whatever her adolescent longings seem to signal.

Is she a flat character? I wouldn’t wholesale deny such a description, but I’d say instead that she is a fundamentally simple sort of person: a beautiful girl from Nowheresville, South Carolina who knows she’s beautiful and knows even better how to utilize her looks—as well as others’ assumption of her naivete/guilelessness—to her advantage. What’s most striking, though, is how blasé she is with the rather extraordinary sequence of events she finds herself in: from the ramshackle home of a rich-kid-turned-revolutionary-punk-wannabe with a pierced penis to being kidnapped by a young man who camps out with homosexual Muslim isolationists, she takes it all in stride and always manages to slip away whenever a good opportunity arises. She is continually insulated from real danger, as protected by her beauty and youth as she is by her pluckiness.

If the descriptions in the prior paragraph caused you to raise your eyebrows, a couple points. 1) Yes, the film, more than once, goes gonzo, and is clearly painting in a surrealistic mode. 2) It’s impressive that, for all its wacky devil-may-care attitude, The Sweet East never really falls apart, and while the majority of viewers may turn their nose to what’s onscreen (an older couple walked out of my screening about halfway in), one nevertheless gets the impression that the filmmakers have successfully managed to make the kind of film they set out to make. And what kind of film is that, exactly?

One can say it is a gallivant through contemporary America’s cultural landscape—replete with disaffected media-fractured youth, writhing against/within any and every system, as well as highly-educated Black indie filmmakers and highly-educated White Nationalist academes—as filtered through the flighty willfulness of a small-town girl with big-city dreams. It is also a visual hodge-podge of techniques ranging from the silent era to the Safdie Brothers (Williams having worked as cinematographer for a number of their films). References to history, cinematic and national and artistic and otherwise, abound: Simon Rex’s oddball Professor Lawrence goes on so many dry rants about Edgar Allen Poe, film criticism, and anti-wokeism that it’s easy to believe the character exists as an avatar/whipping boy for Pinkerton’s own varied takes; and, in one frame, Talia Ryder’s sad-eyed gorgeous mien seems to strongly resemble Botticelli’s Venus.

America as portrayed by The Sweet East is a land of disunited ideologies/enclaves all seeking to impress their authority on Lillian, and all living in explicit tension with one another. (Tension that, in one hilarious sequence, explodes in cartoonish violence.) But it is a land that, nonetheless, like the film itself, comes across as a coherent whole, perhaps because and not in spite of its fractured nature. Even in the midst of its zaniness—the inciting action involves a crazed Andy Milonakis shooting up a karaoke bar whilst shrieking about Pizzagate conspiracies—it’s all stuff we can instantly recognize, however regrettably.

Because the movie is so free-wheeling and discursive, and so evasive of any sense of definitiveness, it’s hard to give The Sweet East anything other than a mildly enthusiastic recommendation. It truly is unlike anything else you’ll see tossed to the masses in American theaters, but like most compelling debuts, what’s most compelling is its inchoate quality, how it seems to be forming its notion of itself as it goes. I wouldn’t call The Sweet East a “strong” film, for that reason, although its structure as a series of increasingly surreal episodes is well-deployed in that it vibes with its own sense of wild discovery.

They very last of the closing title cards spells out “Everything Will Happen”, and even after all the biting irony throughout the film, one is struck by this undeniable optimism that Williams and Pinkerton end with. In one interview, Ryder and Williams muse that after the events of the film, Lillian goes on to become President—and why not? The dream-like quality of the movie works in that it seems to excuse its over-the-top moments, but it also accentuates Lillian’s aforementioned insulation: all the craziness’s worst moments never really touches her, and she returns home with her “innocence” intact, as if her adventures all occurred in slumber. I put that word in quotation marks because unlike many coming-of-age tales, there really isn’t a profound moment of disillusionment for Lillian. It’d be too strong a word, anyway: she’s frequently disappointed, sure, but there’s no sense of growth out of a shattered ignorance, or despoiled innocence. (The one time this might occur, with the professor in an NYC hotel suite, the moment is nullified.) If anything, Lillian comes out rather unimpressed by these travails, as the world, more often than not, seemed to bend itself to her whims and not the other way around.

A recurrent gesture (shown three times, if memory serves) is a random item being idly twirled around a character’s finger, with the very first appearance being that of a freshly-used condom. It’s a casual motion, usually done in a moment of distraction, or to simply pass the time; to suggest playfulness, also, an action idly drawing attention to itself. This, I think, in its own silly way, says something about both the spirit of Lillian and the spirit of The Sweet East.

More information can be found in this helpfully thorough survey of the film by Adam Nayman on Cinema Scope, followed by an insightful interview with Sean Price Williams himself.

* * *

If you enjoyed this review of Sean Price Williams’s The Sweet East, consider supporting us and get patron-only content on our Patreon page. This will help the growth of this site, the automachination YouTube channel, and the ArtiFact Podcast. Recent episodes include a debunking of black conservative Thomas Sowell, a roast of white supremacist Jared Taylor, and an analysis of the Roman mythos in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra.

More from Ezekiel Yu: Man-Child: Reviewing Jonathan Glazer’s “Birth” (2004), Their First Small Beginnings: On “The Wind in the Willows”Sordid Romp: On Emerald Fennell’s “Saltburn” (2023)