In The Sweet East, a high school senior take a journey through fame, exploitation, and Delaware. Working from a script co-written with the influential critic Nick Pinkerton, Sean Price Williams’ punky directorial debut boasts both the cinematographer’s signature aesthetic (grainy, shaky, full of lovely pastels and close-ups) and Pinkerton’s idiosyncratic, roguish worldview. Premiering this week in Directors’ Fortnight, The Sweet East––seemingly taking cues from John Waters––is cinema at its most playfully facetious, infectiously puerile, and flagrantly transgressive, and an early highlight of a Cannes Film Festival that, near its midway point, has been somewhat short on provocation.
The Sweet East stars a brilliant Talia Ryder as the Californian Alice in Williams and Pinkerton’s dirty East Coast Wonderland. In her first lead role since breaking out in Never Rarely Sometimes Always, she plays Lillian (one of many nods to D.W. Griffith), a faux-ingénue with a knack for ending up in dicey situations and an even better one for slipping out of them. Williams and Pinkerton’s fevered, druggy fairytale takes her from Washington, D.C. to New York via the Delaware river (Williams repping his home state) and getting more or less abducted by one dubious suitor after the next. Amongst them are a greasy punk who refers to himself as an “artivist,” a chaste Neo-Nazi, a group of Muslim men who enjoy trashy dance music, and a heartthrob actor. At one point a bright red bag of cash is introduced. At another a famous face gets blown to bits. For a film of so many scumbags, it has a nice sense of humility. (“The Sweet East is a flare shot across the sky of America,” Williams explains in the press notes, “America made this film.”)
For all of Pinkerton and Williams’ incendiary ideas, however, this unique energy comes from the collective––a troupe who are obviously enjoying each other’s company, something rarely quite so apparent in films. Though not exclusively populated by icons of the downtown scene, Williams has put together a cast that reads like a New York Magazine infographic: Simon Rex (brilliantly delaying gratification as the Neo-fascist); the playwright Jeremy O. Harris and The Bear star Ayo Edebiri (doing a lively double-act as an overly enthusiastic indie film team); Nick Cave’s son Earl (as the scuzzy punk); director-actor siblings Peter Vack and Betsey Brown; Euphoria’s Jacob Elordi; and Butthole Surfers singer Gibby Haynes. That downtown scene appears to be just as alive in the film’s provocations: trigger words (the ones that start with “F” and “R”), post-ironic right-wing nationalism, trad-wife aesthetics, a Pizzagate joke for the ages, and so forth and so on. The Red Scare duo are thanked in the credits. Somewhere, Mike Crumps is already penning a Substack.
The road from writing about films to writing them is not so well-traveled, but The Sweet East suggests an argument for––in playful efforts to confound expectations it often delivers something dazzlingly fresh. It starts off brilliantly––gung-ho, attention-deficit, pausing only for a surprisingly sweet little musical number (an original tune by Paul Grimstad, sung beautifully by Ryder). Simon Rex’s Proud Boy-meets-Lolita section is perfectly spicy and perfectly balanced; the Star is Born discovery a little less so, but it’s plenty fun. Railing against conventions has the potential to become conventional after a while, and the film eventually suffers from a case of diminishing returns, but there’s more than enough to warrant such lulls. And of course Williams ends it with a lot of swagger.
Anyone who’s ever read a word of Pinkerton’s work could probably guess the kind of film he’d want to make, and The Sweet East fits that bill: it’s fun and hot, smart and dumb, a total blast.
The Sweet East premiered at the 76th Cannes Film Festival.