Talia Ryder stars as a high school student who becomes embroiled in various precarious situations on the east coast of America in Sean Price Williams' feature debut.
Like Eminem’s 2004 single Mosh, the new comedy The Sweet East opens with contextless audio of schoolchildren reciting the United States’ pledge of allegiance. And in keeping with that key artifact of Bushiana, the Director’s Fortnight selection — directed by cinematographer extraordinaire Sean Price Williams and written by Nick Pinkerton, mal vivant and surely the Slim Shady of film criticism — seeks to indict the spiritually befucked culture of a dysfunctional America with a provocateur’s spirit fronting shaky, contrarian political convictions.
For the film’s first few minutes, it seems like it may very well be twenty years ago: kids point camcorders at each other, style their makeup with the crudeness of a pre-YouTube-tutorial era, and still use the word “retarded” in reference to things they find lame. While on a class trip to Washington D.C., one girl roars rap-rock at karaoke. Shortly thereafter, Andy Milonakis does Pizzagate, and announces the setting as Right Now.
Markers of the present cover this ribald road picture, which sends underage cipher Lillian (Talia Ryder, following through on the wellspring of potential hinted at in Never Rarely Sometimes Always) from one hotbed of unrest to the next, each meant to highlight another stripe of homegrown national idiocy. After fleeing the shooter — who turns out to be right about the child-trafficking ring he’s come to unmask, the first of many dares to take this feature-length exercise in sarcasm seriously — she falls in with some antifa doofuses led by a class-tourist poseur (Earl Caves), a mild-mannered white supremacist (Simon Rex) speaking in purple paragraphs of academic-ese, a pair of cokey chatterboxes (Ayo Edebiri and Jeremy O. Harris) producing a period piece movie with a Tiger Beat heartthrob (Jacob Elordi), a cell of Muslim terrorists-in-training who groove by night to an EDM demo CD labeled “Bismillah Beats”, and a sect of monk-like “brothers” dismissed from the plot before we can find out whatever weirdo shit they’re into.
The press notes label this narrative a picaresque, and the film adheres to the literary tradition’s episodic structuring as well as the inclination to societal critique. It diverges from that lineage in the character of Lillian, however, a far cry from the wily likes of Lazarillo de Tormes. A vessel for the views and experiences of those around her, she’s defined by her passivity and vacuity in her tendency to repeat the last thing she heard to the next person she meets. She sits and listens until the vibes sour, then simply walks away.
As the film would have it, the bloviating men that cross her path have been designed for satirical purposes, their long-winded pretensions a scare-quoted comment about the predatory narcissism of their demographic. And yet extratextual whispers of reactionary leanings — the who’s-who of right-wing creeps thanked in the credits, Williams’ recent anti-union statements in the press — recast some of the put-ons as pretext for naughtiness qua naughtiness, an involved excuse to use frowned-upon words and allow windbags to drone on and on about unsavory esoterica.
Whether in spite of this or because of it, the film is often quite funny, though more in a wry cocked-eyebrow register than the balls-out lunacy of Terry Southern that the filmmakers have claimed as an influence. While the author of Blue Movie also aspired to getting a rise out of those not hip to his inside jokes with himself and his industry clique, at least he followed the earnest principles of slavering horniness and worship for cinema. On the perilous highways of Williams and Pinkerton’s U.S. of A., believing in anything makes you a mark.
Published 18 May 2023
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