The Safdie Brothers’ Good Time cinematographer Sean Price Williams returns to the Cannes Film Festival after last year’s Funny Pages premiere but this time as a director with The Sweet East starring Talia Ryder, Simon Rex and Jacob Elordi. Price Williams’ feature debut is an equal parts unapologetically chaotic and hilarious adventure comedy.
Separated from her boyfriend and classmates on a school trip to Washington, D.C., Lillian (Ryder) stumbles across Caleb (Earl Cave), a crazed anarchist, as they escape a shooting at a local bar. Caleb takes Lillian to his home nearby which is shared by a load of other activists and anarchists who plan on doing something big the next day. It’s here where Lillian accidentally parts ways with Caleb as she stumbles across a university professor named Lawrence (Rex) at a very, very questionable event.
Lillian’s journey as she runs away from home is a never-ending saga of craziness, ditching person after person in some attempt to find out who she wants to be in life. Initially Lillian is lost, but she is so chill in nature that she easily adapts to new lifestyles. Along the way, we are shown snippets of America’s strangest factions that can be found scattered in all parts of the country. The people that Ryder’s protagonist meets are representations of contemporary Americans and just how different everyone is. Price Williams is not interested in making a scathing film about how messed up America is, but rather he focuses on the funny nuances of how people act.
One of the film’s best moments comes from Rex’s character as he awkwardly tries to resist Lillian’s sexual teasing. Watching Lawrence trying to restrain his inner predatory nature is uncomfortable at first but his struggles become quite amusing as Lillian toys with his feelings as she tests his restraint. You would never think any sort of potentially unnerving scenario like this would be funny, and you probably won’t believe it until you see it, but that’s what makes this film unique. Lillian has little fear as she tries to discover herself as she faces off against some peculiar and dangerous characters from America’s underbelly; creating a strange sort of fairy tale.
Price Williams embraces the chaos of the story, and its free flowing protagonist, with some seriously unbound filmmaking. The camera transports us back to the scruffy B-movie world of the 1990s, caring little about shot composition or any sort of conventions. It’s so freeing to see a filmmaker go against the grain so drastically, especially these days as most Hollywood films look the same because of the so-called rules they embrace. Shot on 16mm, like his work on Funny Pages, the graininess adds to the fairy tale by creating an enhanced sense of otherworldliness. It’s enchanting and mysterious in the best way.
Talia Ryder is alluring as Lillian in this unexpectedly wild adventure along the east coast of America. There is something so enigmatic and different about Lillian, she’s not like those who surround us. It’s freeing to watch someone walk around aimlessly, and likewise a film that acts the same. Ryder gives an incredibly nuanced and chilled out performance, going along with everything until she stops vibing with it. She goes from a lost teenager to anarchist to actor in the space of the film. Joining Ryder, The Bear’s Ayo Edebiri and playwright Jeremy O, Harris deliciously round out the ensemble. They are superb at boosting the satirical nature of their roles as representatives of varying modern American collectives of people, extremes that work in contrast to Lillian’s quietude.
Sean Price Williams has made an extraordinary film that is unbound and unlike any film made recently. It’s a satirical adventure across many subsections of American society. Talia Ryder is an exceptional talent, delivering the best, most unique performance seen at Cannes this year. The Sweet East will be a hit with hip, indie audiences around the world, just wait and see.
This review is from the Directors Fortnight section of the 2023 Cannes Film Festival.