It’s more mellow where the punks sit than the high schoolers upstairs belting out karaoke early on in “The Sweet East,” with the battle appearing to be over as far as who’s capable to making the most noise. At a time where there are so many things to rebel against, only the most frivolous seem to be the easiest to rally around when a bus full of randy and repressed teens from the suburbs head to the nation’s capitol, where the promise of unsupervised debauchery surely gets them through a day of dutifully trudging across the Washington Memorial. Although it’s clear Lillian (Talia Ryder) knows that what’s going on with her classmates above is beneath her, her own unrest wouldn’t seem to find its rightful home amongst the punks she meets either, leading her to sneak off into a bathroom where the lighting is as dim as the future would appear for her in Sean Price Williams’ eagerly anticipated directorial debut. However, as the opening credits start to play with no less than an appearance by Butthole Surfers frontman Gibby Haynes and puppeteers among the coming attractions, those looking for the anarchic spirit that she’s chasing throughout “The Sweet East” have come to the right place.
In his work as a cinematographer for the likes of the Safdie Brothers (“Good Time”) and Alex Ross Perry (“Her Smell”), Williams’ work can have the captivating effect of observing a culture develop inside a petri dish, so interested in the underground at a molecular level and marshaling film grain as frenetic energy. One can’t help but hear the echo of the famous lament of Peter Fonda’s Captain America in “Easy Rider” – “We blew it” – at the start of Lillian’s adventure across the eastern seaboard, particularly when its first impression involves the sound of engines revving and the sight on TV of a motorcycle-riding stuntman, when he and writer Nick Pinkerton renew a consideration of the American experiment having gone awry, having their lead fall in with a collective of “artivists” with thoughts of anarchy, though the time they’re afforded to protest appears to be as beneficiaries of the system they rail against, then gets invited back to the Delaware home of Lawrence (Simon Rex), a college professor more than happy to give lectures in private where he doesn’t have to hide his white nationalist beliefs, and eventually is spotted on the street by Molly (Ayo Edebiri) and Matthew (Jeremy O. Harris), a pair of filmmakers in New York who believe they’ve found the star for their subversive historical epic to play off of a tabloid sensation (Jacob Elordi).
The fictional filmmakers’ aims may be misguided, but they aren’t wrong about Lillian’s star quality or at least the actress playing her when Ryder shoulders a potentially unwieldy narrative with an irresistible mystique. At first, this can be played for laughs when the comedy makes a shrewd running joke out of how there’s always a place for an attractive young woman when the strangers she meets will go to ridiculous lengths to make accommodations for her as she travels from DC to Vermont without so much as cash, credit card or a cell phone, but Ryder adds a sharp, knowing quality to Lillian, able to comport to the needs of any situation at hand, occasionally changing her name and regurgitating things she’s picked up from other people’s lives to describe her own, keenly aware that there’s no fear of being exposed as a fraud in a world where everyone is too consumed by craving attention for themselves. She also radiates an interest in the unknown that seems to be another aspect that makes her more of an outsider in in a society that’s grown more tribal and fearful of anything unfamiliar.
Williams invites that curiosity at every turn with the eclectic cast he’s assembled and every entertaining detour into a variety of subcultures, and for as much of the current social climate it gleefully torches in effigy, “The Sweet East” is just as apt to light a fire under anyone who has developed an apathy towards the movies, showing there’s still room for rebellion.
“The Sweet East” will screen at the Cannes Film Festival as part of Directors Fortnight on May 18th at 8:45 pm at the Theatre Croisette, May 19th at the Cinema La Licorne at 9 am and the Cinema Les Arcades at 11:30 am and the Cinema Alexandre III at 4:30 pm.