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The Sweet East review: Smart and dumb. Fascinating and frustrating. An absolute blast

Sean Price Williams’s directorial debut is like nothing else out there

The Sweet East
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Director: Sean Price Williams
Cert: None
Starring: Talia Ryder, Earl Cave, Simon Rex, Ayo Edebiri, Jeremy O Harris, Jacob Elordi
Running Time: 1 hr 44 mins

If you left Civil War irritated at the film-makers’ reluctance to clarify what is causing the United States to fray at the seams, then prepare yourself for a significantly more bewildered dissection of that nation. Whereas the Alex Garland flick happily embraced mainstream strategies, this madcap picaresque film plays like an effusion of the late 1960s counterculture. Making his directorial debut, Sean Price Williams, cinematographer to the likes of Alex Ross Perry and the Safdie brothers, shoots in grainy blurs that increase our sense that the action is being improvised at breakneck speed. The actors embrace the off-the-cuff aesthetic. All is buzz, glow and funk. There is nothing else like it out there (though there once may have been).

Talia Ryder, previously seen as the protagonist’s pal in Never Rarely Sometimes Always, turns up as a southern schoolgirl who gets separated from her classmates while on a trip to Washington, DC. She is then buffeted from one set of oddballs to the next. Here a tedious gang of anarchists. Next a Muslim cadre in Vermont. Might Ayo Edebiri be in this? She is. The honorary Irishwoman plays one half of a navel-gazing indie film-maker partnership that casts our protagonist in a confusing historical satire. (Might the screenwriter Nick Pinkerton, an often unforgiving film critic, have models in mind for the directors?) Most unnervingly, she lodges with a white supremacist (the great Simon Rex) who speaks more lucidly than anybody else in the picture.

The film is at its most effective during that last section, inviting Rex, who was so good in Red Rocket, to fire the queasiest charm in our direction. “The election was a pre-scripted puppet show. Just like every year,” he says in a characteristic stream of articulate paranoia. Here Pinkerton and Williams really seem to be engaging with the most destructive temptations put before contemporary Americans.

Elsewhere, the film is more in the business of firing grape shots at flapping barn doors. Who doesn’t enjoy that? Jacob Elordi is on hand to play the heart-throb in the movie within the movie. Stephen Gurewitz edits with addled relish. There is a sense here not just of Vietnam-era experimental cinema but of contemporaneous postmodern novels by the likes of Thomas Pynchon and the recently late John Barth. Smart and dumb. Fascinating and frustrating. An absolute blast.


The Sweet East is at the Light House, Dublin, and Pálás, Galway, from Friday, April 19th

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist