“The Sweet East” Plays Fast and Loose with the Politics of Hatred

The distinctive cinematography of Sean Price Williams has been making its mark on modern American independent filmmaking for two decades, ever since 2002, when he was shooting Ronald Bronstein’s “Frownland” (which was eventually released in 2008). Now, with his first feature as sole director, “The Sweet East,” Williams presents something as drastically different from the recent run of independent films as “Frownland” was from its contemporaries. Written by Nick Pinkerton—who, among other things, is a noted film critic—the movie is a picaresque adventure, a sort of contemporary “Wizard of Oz” in which a teen-age girl named Lillian Wade (Talia Ryder) finds herself propelled out of her ordinary American life into a wild and phantasmagorical—though utterly real—world of eccentric characters and ambient violence.

Lillian, a high-school senior from South Carolina, is on a school trip to Washington, D.C., where, amid the droning inanities of a bored tour guide and her classmates’ partying, she narrowly misses getting caught in a mass shooting at a karaoke bar-cum-pizzeria. Led to safety by a punk anarchist named Caleb (Earl Cave), she follows him and an Antifa-like group to a communal house in Baltimore and then to a park near Trenton, New Jersey, as they set out to attack some neo-Nazis. Needing another out, she follows the sound of some music and stumbles into a white-supremacist rally, where she is interrogated by a man named Lawrence (Simon Rex). In contrast to the other men at the rally—stereotypically muscled, tattooed, bearded—Lawrence is a self-styled gentleman and a professor of American Romanticism, with a special interest in Poe, who conceals his white-supremacist leanings lest it harm his career in academia (which he pronounces to rhyme with “macadamia”). With promises of chaste intentions as a mere “well-wisher,” he puts Lillian up at his home in rural New Jersey, while spluttering slurs against trans and gay people and loftily inveighing against modern culture at large. He delivers a line that’s the crux of the character—and of the film—when he declares that his father, a railroad brakeman, bought the house in 1968, a time, he says, when such houses were affordable on a workingman’s salary. How that lament connects with the swastikas on Lillian’s bedspread, rather than with half a century of plutocratic policy, is never suggested. In any case, he chastely lusts after her and she plays him like a fiddle, cadging luxuries and, in the process, putting herself and others at greater risk than she can imagine.

When she makes another run for it, she meets a pair of filmmakers—a director named Molly (Ayo Edebiri) and a producer named Matthew (Jeremy O. Harris). Seeing Lillian on a New York street, they experience creative love at first sight. Williams depicts them as goofy and self-promotional—but Molly and Matthew are nonetheless the heroes of the film, the only people whose interest in Lillian is productive, constructive, transformative. From the other people she encounters in her headlong and desperate escapes, she gets a lifeline; from the filmmakers, she gets a life. They rush her into a studio and have her read for a lead role in the movie they’re about to make. They spew intellectual jargon and gush with delight at her every quirk. Their movie, set in upstate New York in the nineteenth century, is a historical pastiche, a scattershot revisionist view of the American psychic loam that stars a big-time actor (played by Jacob Elordi) who seems to crave indie street cred. Despite their self-absorbed antics, Molly and Matthew actually accomplish something, and their film propels Lillian out of obscurity and into the public eye—not the best place for someone who’s on the run.

Elsewhere in this picaresque, we encounter a hip-hop troupe of devout Muslim men lodged in a rural compound, a group of Christian monks living near them, and several more eruptions of large-scale violence. Again and again, Lillian just barely escapes from risky situations through her well-honed flight instinct, her plausibility when lying her way out of trouble, and her attractiveness, which insures a stream of men ready to come gallantly to her aid. All of which is to say that “The Sweet East” is a fantasy of protean inventiveness, pitting Lillian’s improvisational wiles against the violent, predatory, ideologically polarized hellscape of the American present. The film is realized on a large canvas, with more supporting characters than might be found in a whole year’s worth of other independent films and with action ranging from South Carolina to Vermont. Yet, despite this scope, the movie feels narrow and constrained. Its expansiveness too readily boils down to a tendentious core message, and there is something calculating about the reckless frivolity with which it treats grimly serious themes. Large in conception, it comes across as small of spirit, cramped in its sympathies and crabby in its attitudes.

It’s telling that Lawrence is the only developed character, the only one whose discourse is presented with an earnest tone. The movie is filled with his riffs about Europeans’ condescending view of the U.S., about white “racial consciousness,” about the dubiously stoked hostility of “minorities” against “white America,” about the pointlessness of elections. He rants about America’s “degraded culture” (including, he says, “To Kill a Mockingbird”) and praises Lillian as “not very contemporary.” The film’s ideas are all in Lawrence’s mouth, and his passionate invocation of literature and history lend them credibility. (Pinkerton is currently working on a critical biography of the director Jean Eustache, whose masterwork, “The Mother and the Whore,” from 1973, also includes Nazi memorabilia and reactionary discourse—albeit in a radically personal and painfully self-scourging way.) Lawrence’s cultural contempt is the engine of “The Sweet East,” which is presented as a corrective to the way of the world by the force of its own wild yet stunted energies.

Frustration is at the core of “The Sweet East,” above all, frustration with the world of movies today: franchise monoculture on one hand; on the other, what the film sees as a hegemony of bien-pensant virtue that dominates independent cinema. The difficulty comes when it tries to reach beyond these constraints. The movie looks as if from overhead to celebrate the cliché of “old, weird America” and devises examples, however satirical, in both dumpster-diving leftists and the devoutly religious. The film gets outside big cities to show an unusual range of characters, but the characters themselves feel contrived. The movie is certainly unorthodox in the discourse that it delivers and the attitudes that it embodies, but these ideas come off as willfully heterodox, determined not by inner conviction but just by what will reliably rile up the milieu of progressive culturati at which the filmmakers take aim.

Craft risks becoming conservative when its practitioners or its partisans believe it is under threat, whether from the spectre (real or imagined) of insufficiently skilled competitors or of an insufficiently discerning audience. Still, it’s odd to find Williams, whose avoidance of the manicured norms of Hollywood cinematography has long placed him at the forefront of artistic advance, constructing such a nostalgic bastion against the ostensible artistic barbarians at the gate. Gentility may be his bugbear and his target, but the images of “The Sweet East” embody a new orthodoxy of ostensible authenticity: straightforward and clear but with a rough-hewn graininess. Where the closeups that he realized in such films as “Frownland” or “Heaven Knows What” have a physical immediacy of passionate purpose, the ones in “The Sweet East” have an arm’s-length directorial tone: they put the script into action on the screen, as if the printed text were interposed between the camera and the performers. Having apparently strived so hard to get outside of the indie-film bubble, this movie does so with little curiosity; the on-location settings are more like sets and backdrops for self-consciously peculiar characters and situations.

Throughout, “The Sweet East” harks back longingly to an older cinematic tradition. There are old-timey title cards in the style of D. W. Griffith’s early silent short films and, when Lawrence is riffing about Poe, he and Lillian are watching Griffith’s 1909 short Poe bio-pic. The title is reminiscent of Griffith’s 1920 feature “Way Down East” and the protagonist of this film shares a name with the star of that one, Lillian Gish. Williams’s Lillian could almost be taken for a Griffith-like young heroine, but she displays a guileful and greedy naïveté that, the movie suggests, reflects the hollowness and triviality of the mass culture and the miseducation to which she’s been subjected.

Lillian isn’t so much an innocent as a blank, the blank screen onto whom others project their fantasies and desires. Lawrence sees her both as a victim of pop culture and a malleable young mind to impregnate with his extreme ideas. Molly and Matthew perceive in her a talent and a personality that will serve their art and captivate audiences; another young man (Rish Shah) with a large savior complex has designs of his own. The film’s main delights of style are found in Pinkerton’s script, which gives Lillian an appealing wit: when she sends a letter to a friend back home affirming that she hasn’t been kidnapped, she adds that this is exactly what a kidnapping victim would be writing under duress. There’s a revealing stroke of characterization in the way her speech is studded with phrases and stories she’s heard from other characters, as if she were trying them on for size. Yet Williams and Pinkerton ultimately blank Lillian out by depriving her of her own stories. Her admirers have personalities, tendencies, opinions, interests, enthusiasms; Lillian has an appearance, and, even as she distinguishes herself by her ability to survive by her wits, her experiences are unmarked by subjectivity or reflection—an impoverishment of character that’s indicated by the slightness of the images in which she’s depicted. For all the closeups of her that Williams delivers, none of them have the pathos or the inwardness of the ones in which Lawrence drinks her in with his eyes while enduring the torment of his frustrated lust. He doesn’t just get the movie’s discourse, he gets its vision.

Lawrence is a fictional character. I don’t at all suspect that Williams shares his politics, his prejudices, or his cravings. Rather, the film relies on them for shock value—in effect, uses them as entertainment. It’s a display of cavalier cynicism. The film uses the politics of hatred to flaunt a repudiation of the cinematic and cultural norms of the independent-film scene while also using those politics as a crowbar to force its way to prominence in it. In the process, the movie frivolously normalizes that discourse in that very milieu. ♦

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