Film: The Sweet East

Whatever I was expecting from The Sweet East (2023) after watching its trailer, I didn’t get it, but in the best possible way. With an appealing guerilla-filmmaking approach that screams indie, this one’s biting surrealist commentary has an infectious vibe. It’s basically a travelogue about a high-school student named Lillian (Talia Ryder) who gets separated from her class during a Washington, D.C. field trip, then proceeds to have numerous eclectic adventures along the eastern seaboard. An initial brush with antifa leads to an unexpected sanctuary with a white supremacist. Then, Lillian is discovered by filmmakers and cast in a movie, only to go into hiding when past misdeeds catch up with her. Throughout, young Lillian is both shaped by the world and resists that shaping, refusing to allow her random encounters to define her.

The point of The Sweet East is delightfully blurry—I wasn’t always entirely sure what it was trying to say, but it’s an artful confusion that contributes to the protagonist’s rolling dilemma. Lillian is a blank slate, resourcefully attempting to navigate a perverse modern world that seems hellbent on imprinting stultifying expectations on her. This makes it at once a slick, sideways critique of contemporary American sociopolitical dysfunction, and a darkly funny, empathetic glimpse at the challenges young people face growing into such a broken world. Ryder delivers a grounding central performance as the slightly unreliable ingenue at the center of things, while quirky, enjoyable performances from the likes of Earl Cave, Ayo Edebiri, Jacob Elordi, Jeremy O. Harris, Simon Rex, Rish Shah, and others inject each episode with madcap, memorable energy. After the frenetic oddness of the journey, The Sweet East’s subdued ending both feels like a fade-out and a thought-provoking coda, leaving lingering questions in the mind. An interesting, immersive, and refreshingly different film.

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