Features Live Action Movies

The Sweet East

Director – Sean Price Williams – 2023 – US – Cert. 18 – 104m


Dumping her boyfriend, a South Carolina high school student skips a class trip to Washington, DC and falls in with a series of outsiders living in their own isolated visions of America – out in UK cinemas on Friday, March 29th

Although this starts off with heroine Lilian (Talia Ryder from West Side Story, Stephen Spielberg, 2021) in bed with her boyfriend Troy (Jack Irv), and a lot of visible flesh, it’s not so much a sex scene as a scene in which two people talk about the ending of the movie they watched last night. Soon after, the pair and their classmates are piled into a coach, complete with tour guide, driving them to Washington, DC. When Troy and others lark around in hotel corridors, she doesn’t really feel part of what’s going on.

At a restaurant, she meets activist and body-piercing enthusiast Caleb (Earl Cave from True History of the Kelly Gang, Justin Kurzel, 2019, Days of the Bagnold Summer, Simon Bird, 2019), who without sexual intent shows her the piercings and metal studs encrusting his penis. Going with him and his fellow commune members to an activists’ event, she finds herself at an outdoor radicals’ fair where she meets Laurence (Simon Rex from Red Rocket, Sean Baker, 2021) to whom she gives her name as Annabelle and who kindly offers her a place to stay – his place in Delaware, no strings attached.

Laurence tells her he has to be careful of people finding that he’s at the fair on account of his position as an academic. She moves into his house, where there are many scenic walks to do and books to read, and she is intrigued when a bald visitor with a tattooed head leaves him a big red duffel bag prior to their trip to New York. When he has gone, she asks Laurence to let her come along on the trip. She takes a bath, offering to leave the door open if he’s let her come with him on the trip. He loiters by the open door, but does not go further in taking the bait, at least, nothing that we see.

Later, when he has gone out of the house, she checks the red duffel bag to find it full of wads of banknotes.

Finding the trip to New York too low-key, she talks Laurence into trading up the cheap hotel he booked (with two separate rooms) for a much more expensive Manhattan one, suggesting one rather than two rooms. While he’s out, she leaves with the bag of money, running into a black, male producer / female director filmmaking couple Matthew (Jeremy O. Harris) and Molly (Ayo Edibiri from Theater Camp, Molly Gordon, Nick Lieberman, 2023) who audition her and give her a part in their movie. It turns out she will be playing alongside rising star Ian Reynolds (Jacob Elordi from Priscilla, Sofia Coppola, 2023; Saltburn, Emerald Fennell, 2023). She is on set at night when the Laurence’s bald visitor turns up with a gun looking for Annabel with a photo of her.

A fellow actor Mo (Rish Shah), realising she may be in trouble, offers her a safe place to stay – a house hidden behind a woods in Vermont where his Islamic brothers pray facing Mecca and dance to electronic music, scenarios she witnesses from the window of the room with a bolt on the outside of the door “for your own safety”. Bored, after some days, she finds a way out through an adjoining barn and to Mo’s horror must negotiate her way past head man Amir (Jordan Nessinger), claiming to be a local girl whose dog has run away. She winds up being taken in by a man running a Christian religious order before returning home to reunite with family and friends.

Its opening notwithstanding, this for the most part refreshingly eschews the idea of female protagonist as sex object (although Lilian wilfully tries a couple of times to send the narrative back in that direction). Opening and closing in South Carolina, it’s an excuse to have a female character traverse the Eastern seaboard of the US and enjoy the hospitality of a series of men (and one filmmaking couple). Depending on your view, she is either amoral, happy-go-lucky or a fool who takes a bag of money which isn’t hers from someone mixed up with activism (which could mean terrorism) with no regard for the potential consequences.

This wilful act makes her much harder to like and the film less compelling to watch. It isn’t like she desperately needs the money like the characters in Beasts Clawing At Straws (Kim Yong-hoon, 2020), which would make us feel some sympathy for her plight.

The loose structure of Nick Pinkerton’s script is populated with a very watchable cast, an arguable who’s who of rising talent, among whom Ryder is the only real constant with people she encounters present for their segment of the narrative and then mostly gone as the film moves on. It’s a pleasant enough viewing experience, and the different people and their homes she encounters suggest a variety of different ways of viewing the world, no single one of them better than any other. It’s a drifter’s way of looking at the world, refusing to pick a stand or stand up for any particular vision or set of values, and, as such, it doesn’t give you anything to either hang on to or rail against. It just is.

The Sweet East is out in cinemas in the UK on Friday, March 29th.


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