Caleb, played by Earl Cave

Life in the Rear-View Mirror: The Sweet East Film Review

Film Review Jun 9, 2024

by Lainie Yank

Director Sean Price Williams’ The Sweet East was screened twice at this year’s Milwaukee Film Festival – April 12 and 18. The movie stars Talia Ryder as Lillian, a nihilistic teen being exposed to a Baudrillardian vision of contemporary America.

Shot on film, The Sweet East is at once nostalgically evocative and ultramodern. In a parodic play on the road movie, Lillian is driven up and down the Eastern Seaboard by a cast of supporting characters representing the utmost absurdism and extremism.

Lillian fulfills the role of a modern-day Alice, first entering the east coast’s own version of Wonderland when she follows her White Rabbit – anarcho-punk Caleb (Earl Cave) – to escape a shooting.

The movie’s first setting of many is Lillian’s class trip to Washington, D.C. The stakes rapidly escalate when the restaurant that the high schoolers are all rowdily hanging out in is attacked by an armed conspiracy theorist accusing the establishment of operating a secret pedophilia ring, à la 2016’s Pizzagate. Caleb leads Lillian through a secret door in the bathroom and she decides from there to accompany him home; that is, to the communal apartment he shares with a number of other unserious, but radical, activists.

Lillian’s stint with the anarchists preempts a series of encounters encompassing the spectrum of America’s political extremes:

After leaving Caleb and his comrades behind, Lillian stumbles upon a gathering of white supremacist skinheads. She catches the attention of Lawrence (Simon Rex), a thoroughly slimy professor and publicly-closeted nazi who takes an inappropriate interest in the teenage protagonist. Lillian spends a considerable amount of the movie’s runtime at Lawrence’s house, replete as it is withSwastika-print bedsheets and a sizable collection of racist literature, after making up a fake identity to gain his sympathy.

Talia Ryder as Lillian, the modern-day Alice

Lawrence himself is a veritable Humbert Humbert to Lillian-Alice’s Lolita (there is no shortage of homage throughout, and Lillian slips in and out of embodying various archetypes). The Sweet East’s writer, Nick Pinkerton, denied taking any inspiration from Nabokov’s novel – which, notably, itself includes allusions to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – when I had the chance to ask him about the characters’ parallels following the April 12 screening. Nonetheless, Lawrence’s interactions with Lillian, while never explicitly sexual, teem with tension and are framed as to highlight his intense desire for the girl under his guardianship.

The choice which led to Lillian’s extended stay with the professor was, in fact, a defining quality of her character: her compulsive lying. While floating between the company of other characters, Lillian is comfortable relinquishing control and simply going along for the ride. (As Ryder sings in “Evening Mirror,” an original song written for the movie, “I’m the first of the fair, and flow through the air.”) In the process, though, she invents new identities with which to introduce herself to her various companions. In doing so, she creates and re- creates her own reality.

After escaping from Lawrence when the two drive to New York City, Lillian continues to cross paths with a series of zany extremists, from Ayo Edebiri and Jeremy O’Harris’ obsessed filmmakers who aspire to turn Lillian into a movie star to an off-the-grid camp inhabited by a group of terrorists-in-training.

To conclude the Alice’s Adventures derivative, the script returns Lillian to her home in South Carolina unscathed: the events of the past months may as well have been a dream. A fundamentally referential film, The Sweet East parodies the craziest forms of home-grown American extremism within a coming-of- age vessel.

Lainie is a native of southeastern Wisconsin who spends far too much time on her phone concerned with pop culture minutiae. She is in the end stages of working towards majors in English and Spanish at Lawrence University. In her spare time, she is a passionate jaywalker.

The Sweet East

Directed by Sean Price Williams
Written by Nick Pinkerton
Produced by Craig Butta, Alex Coco, Alex Ross Perry Staring Talia Ryder, Earl Cave, Somon Rex, Ayo Edebiri, Jeremy O. Harris, Jacob Elordi, Rish Shah Cinematography by Sean Price Williams
Music by Paul Grimstad
104 Min., 2023, United States