Karlovy Vary 2023 Review: THE SWEET EAST, Alice Adventures in MAGAland
Talia Ryder stars; director Sean Price Williams explores the fracture lines of contemporary American society in a bizarro socio-political road movie satire.
Independent cinematographer Sean Price Williams, recognised for his collaborations with the Safdie Brothers, Alex Ross Perry, and Robert Greene, has ventured beyond his established DoP role into new creative territories with his directorial debut, The Sweet East, a sharp and caustic American socio-political satire, masquerading as a road movie.
The Sweet East commences with an intimate scene featuring two high school students on a class trip to Washington D.C., in what can be deemed as an odd callback to American Pie. Williams and screenwriter Nick Pinkerton thereafter diverge from the conventional teen drama narrative, eschewing a lengthy exposition. Instead, the narrative rapidly escalates when the high school students, visiting a local Washington bar, find themselves in the crosshairs of a solitary shooter spouting wild claims about child molestation occurring within the bar's basement.
In the ensuing chaos, the story's protagonist, a high school senior from South Carolina named Lillian, portrayed by Talia Ryder of Never Rarely Sometimes Always, becomes estranged from her classmates amidst the flurry of gunshots and the rantings about a concealed paedophile ring.
A fortuitous encounter with a conceptual artist propels her into a labyrinthine underground tunnel, serving as a palpable metaphor for Alice's proverbial rabbit hole. Consequently, this sets the stage for our unassuming heroine's odyssey through the urban sprawls and verdant wildernesses that punctuate the Eastern seaboard of the United States.
Indeed, Pizzagate, one of the more recent fabrications of American lore, weaves its way with surprising speed and influence throughout the narrative, setting a thematic benchmark for an abundance of zeitgeist Americana. The film orchestrates an episodic journey across the chasms of social division, political polarization, and radicalization that define contemporary America.
Lillian, after yet another separation, this time from overzealous leftist artists, embarks on a solitary expedition across sprawling fields, only to stumble upon a white supremacist gathering. Here, she garners the unwelcome attention of Lawrence, a suspiciously virtuous scholar radiating an unsettling aura of lewdness, impressively portrayed by Simon Rex of Red Rocket fame.
Unexpectedly finding herself dwelling at Lawrence's abode, Lillian tactfully exploits his peculiar hospitality and striking naivety. Yet, the interaction doesn't unfold as might be anticipated. Rather than succumbing to the stereotype of dominant masculinity, Lawrence exudes an intriguing level of restraint, willingly taken in by Lillian's wiles.
This dynamic, fuelled by her playful yet deliberate taunting, morphs Rex's character into a neo-Nazi mirror of Humbert Humbert, a clear nod to Nabokov's Lolita. Such intertextual references aren't merely implied, but fully acknowledged within the narrative, illuminating the improbable meeting of beauty and a beast of distinctly humanistic underpinnings.
Lillian's ensuing odyssey through the divided psyche and soul of America exposes her to an array of subcultures and communities; she encounters everyone from naive conspiracy enthusiasts and neo-Nazis, to exuberant New York indie filmmakers, white supremacists, sexually repressed Islamic militants, and even monastic orders.
Contrary to expectations, Lillian isn't the gullible one, nor is she the one being manipulated. Indeed, she soon reveals a surprising aptitude for adapting to and adopting various identities and personas. Rather than being a vulnerable figure caught in a whirlwind of subcultures, she reveals herself to have her own hidden agenda, even if it means improvising within each new environment she infiltrates.
The Sweet East presents a surreal portrayal of the contemporary American dichotomy between (American) dream and nightmare. Lillian rapidly learns to navigate diverse subcultures and communities, turning her chameleon-like ability to change identities to her advantage. In this narrative, identity is exposed as a fluid construct, a performative persona that Lillian skillfully manipulates as a strategic tool.
The Sweet East upholds its visual allure through Williams' signature scuzzy aesthetic, evoking a 16mm vibe reminiscent of his collaborations with Alex Ross Perry and the Safdie Brothers. The film elegantly intertwines cinematic references spanning from the era of silent film to contemporary American indie cinema, thereby creating a rich and sophisticated tapestry of filmic nods.
Williams daringly modulates the film's tone, oscillating between intellectual satire and near-slapstick buffoonery, blending playful experimentation and provocation reminiscent of John Waters' style, albeit without the overt abjectivity and transgressions. The film uses the medium of cinema much like its protagonist, Lillian, manipulates her identity: with dexterity, adaptability, and an uncanny knack for fludiity.
Lillian traverses from one surreal rabbit hole to another, navigating through the fragmentary socio-psychological landscape that constitutes the American psyche. The Sweet East ingeniously intertwines seemingly antagonistic concepts, which, under ordinary circumstances, might be perceived as hyperbolic or caricatured.
Yet, given the contemporary American climate, these notions are eerily normalised. The rapid succession of these experiences amplifies the absurdity, highlighting the film's caricatured commentary. In essence, The Sweet East presents an eccentric road movie, providing a poignant examination of how politics increasingly distort the societal fabric.
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The Sweet East
- Sean Price Williams
- Nick Pinkerton
- Talia Ryder
- Earl Cave
- Simon Rex