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Sean Price Williams’ Incisive Directorial Debut Is A Caustic Portrayal of Americana

May 20, 2023

A few seconds before the world premiere of Sean Price Williams’ directorial debut “The Sweet East,” the names of Josh and Benny Safdie rolled on the screen as part of the Directors’ Fortnight vignette. It feels only prescient, as the Cannes sidebar is destined to do for Williams what it did for the brothers, having launched the Safdies’ career by playing their first two features, “The Pleasure of Being Robbed” and “Daddy Longlegs,” in 2007 and 2009, respectively. 
READ MORE: 2023 Cannes Film Festival: 21 Must-See Movies To Watch
Williams, who worked with the Safdies in 2017’s “Good Time,” finds his protagonist in Lillian (Talia Ryder), a nonchalant teen from South Carolina who gets separated from her class during a high-school trip to Washington. It is only fitting the heroine’s journey starts in the capital of the United States in the midst of an active-shooter situation, considering Williams sends Lillian on an Alice in Wondermerica voyage that examines the bowels of Americana through the teen’s interactions — and effect — on a sprawling array of characters she meets on the road. 
“The Sweet East” is at once enamored and repulsed by the idea of America. On the meatiest of the film’s four chapters, Lillian unknowingly introduces herself as Annabel to Edgar Allen Poe aficionado Lawrence (Simon Rex), a professor who brandishes academic knowledge as a weapon in the fight towards unimpeded hatred and misinformation. Because barking dogs rarely bite, Lillian finds safety in the Nazi memorabilia-filled shelter that is Lawrence’s home, escaping the cold under a blanket fashioned out of a swastika print. 
Critic-turned-screenwriter Nick Pinkerton places Lawrence as the foundation of a script unafraid to hit a nail in its protruding head. Inhibited by a belief settled as deeply as the foundational stone of good ol’ ‘Murica, the academic is a walking encyclopedia whose stamina never fades. Annabel arrives at his abode as if, in a dream, his very own stork-delivered Lolita carved out of the precious material that is fair skin. Fashioned as a fit Dwight Schrute, Rex’s performance is as tight as the belt that holds his tacky yellow shirt neatly inside his cargo pants. Rex taps into the well of charm that crowned his “Red Rocket” performance to turn an unlikeable character into a puddle of likeability. Here, however, Rex plays with repressed desire instead of unleashed sexuality, his yearning for the teenager in his proud boy haven tugging at the iron strings of self-discipline. 
It is in response to the longing of others that Ryder finds her stride, converting perceived ingenuity into sheer sagacity. She shrugs at compliments delivered as swoons while fully aware of the many benefits brought by beauty. She contorts her toes and touches them softly on the thighs of thirsty men, pouting her lips slightly as if in a plea, her striking face captured beautifully through the textured film hues. Williams enlists a handful of recent indie darlings to keep Ryder company, including Ayo Edebiri and Jeremy O’Harris as an enthusiastic director-producer pair, British rising star Rish Shah as one of Lillian’s many devoted admirers, and soon-to-be Elvis in Sofia Coppola’s “Priscilla” Jacob Elordi as a tabloid-bait movie star. 
While casting proves an asserted feat, the main laurels to be placed upon “The Sweet East” come from the marriage between Pinkerton’s deliciously caustic writing and Williams’ immersive eye for imagery. The seesawing between almost overwhelming bouts of overwriting and glimpses of lulling visual stimulation — including fantasy interludes brought in through animation —- makes for a film that is just as much a director’s affair as a writer’s, their talents tugging at opposite ends of the rope extended between the luring feel of the pictorial and the gritty notes of the textual. 
For a film that fishes belly laughter out of its audience with the ease of funny confidence, “The Sweet East” still proves a watch firmly planted in sober nihilism, a fever dream of sociopolitical commentary that eats from the feast of Fox News and regurgitates a homage to Lindsay Anderson by way of Forrest Gump. Shot in a way reminiscent of classic ’70s cinema while commenting on the woes of the contemporary, Williams builds a timely film that still feels timeless, an expansive chronicling of a slice of America ripe for many a rewatch. [B+] 
Follow along with all our coverage from the 2023 Cannes Film Festival.

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