The Sweet East review – high-school student’s eccentric road trip up and down the coast

Estimated read time 2 min read

High-school student Lillian (Talia Ryder) gets separated from her classmates and chaperones at a pizza parlour during a school trip to Washington DC because a deranged shooter is convinced paedophiles are operating out of its basement. And so begins an adventure up and back down the eastern seaboard, taking Lillian from her native South Carolina up through the nation’s capital, to New York City, Vermont and beyond, meeting all manner of eccentrics, extremists, hipsters and hoodlums. It’s the sort of lolloping, weird ride through society that’s a textbook example of the classical picaresque, in which a low-born, none-too-honest but appealing protagonist gets up to stuff. Think of 18th-century novels like Tom Jones or Moll Flanders, but updated to contemporary America – although the film contrives to get Lillian dolled up in revolutionary-era petticoats and corsetry, just to underline the parallel.

Ryder is a consistently compelling presence throughout, even though her character’s default mode is doe-eyed gormlessness as she stumbles from situation to situation. Still, Lillian is no fool, and works out quickly how to squeeze herself into whatever shape is required of the situation. That might mean feigning virginal innocence for the benefit of a creepy right-wing academic (Simon Rex) with a thing about Edgar Allan Poe, or learning quickly to play the diva when a pair of film-makers (the always welcome Ayo Edebiri and Jeremy O Harris, both of them having fun) “discover” her on the streets of NYC. They insist she auditions for their latest film for a role opposite currently hot star Ian (played by currently hot star Jacob Elordi from Saltburn and Priscilla).

The section where Lillian tumbles down a film-making rabbit hole is by far the most amusing. Perhaps that’s because it gently sends up the manners and mores of a world The Sweet East’s writer-director, Sean Price Williams, must know well, having been a cinematographer for the likes of downtown and outer borough talents such as the Safdie brothers (Good Time) and Alex Ross Perry (Her Smell). What Williams wants to satirise elsewhere in the film is less clear, but none of the short rides each subplot presents lasts too long before it’s time to transfer to another train.


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