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The Sweet East: a surrealist take on American political hypocrisy

'The surrealist editing and score create an Alice in Wonderland-like fantasy, with an added feeling of continual impending doom.'

Courtesy of IMDb

By Anna Luna, Third Year, Politics and International Relations.

On a trip to Washington D.C., high-schooler Lillian (Talia Ryder) is separated from her classmates when a gunned woman takes over the bar they are at, accusing the owner of pedophilia in the basement. She escapes with 'artivist' Caleb (Earl Cave), whose proudest attribute is his heavily pierced penis, before embarking on an absurdist and picaresque adventure through the East Coast political underworld.

The opening part of the film reeks of 2016 nostalgia, something that feels too recent to be possible. Chokers and juuls abundant, these two elements permeate the remainder of the film to drag the viewer back to 2010s reality. The storyline is divided into chapters, separated by retro title screens. The first episode consists of Lillian's time with a band of anarchists, taking place in the dirty neon underbelly of D.C., and featuring videos of distorted violence fused with the star-spangled banner. Following some disorientation, she finds herself living with Lawrence (Simon Rex), a right-wing Nazi sympathiser, with whom she sunbathes in Americana aesthetics, revealing a dynamic reminiscent of Lolita. She is then picked up by a duo of over-excited, ultra-woke filmmakers, and transported into a world of New York 70s glamour.

The pair are a ludicrous caricature of Gen Z artistic pretension, and are no easier to watch than the rest. In fact, although the characters Lillian ends up with pertain to opposite currents of thought, they have much in common. They rattle on about their beliefs in tangents of political and academic jargon. Punky Caleb is actually as privileged as Lawrence is. The Sweet East (2024) denounces the hypocrisy rampant on every side of American political polarization, holding back on no faction.

Courtesy of IMDb

Ryder's performance is perfect, striking the balance between adolescent indifference, and mysterious intrigue. She spins her ruses and feigns oblivion to manipulate the men on her path, aided by her captivating face that seems fitting in all of the time periods represented. It is impossible for the viewer to read her, it remains unanswered who she may agree with or not, and yet we root for her throughout. She carelessly ambles through political universes like holiday destinations; director Sean Price Williams manages to say nothing on them, while simultaneously condemning every single one.

The surrealist editing and score create an Alice in Wonderland-like fantasy, with an added feeling of continual impending doom. The opening credits are delivered as an original song by Paul Grimstad, performed by Lillian, and bizarre cartoon sequences interject the narrative to make the viewer question its reality.

Courtesy of IMDb

Williams recently bashed production company A24, labelling its films as mass-produced, uniformed indie. Although that may offend A24's impressive cult following, his newest feature is certainly unique, a surprise box of daring filmic choices, that work because Williams is not trying to cater to any particular audience.

The Sweet East is an idiosyncratic road movie that succeeds as an unapologetic political commentary, dragging us through a visually enticing rabbit hole of self-righteous radicals.

What did you make of The Sweet East?