The movie opens up with the beautiful Lillian (Talia Ryder) leaning her head against the mirror and warbling an eerie, bewitching little tune. The images are both creepy and puerile, setting the tone for this 105-minute unusual, dazzling journey along the United States, starting in Washington DC all the way up to Vermont, in New England. This is a bizarre celebration of Americanness in all of its wonders, absurdities and delusions of grandeur.
Lillian and her listless boyfriend are on a school bus in the company of their classmates. The high school students are on a field trip to Washington. Nothing unusual about that: this is something most young Americans do at some point. We learn about a west-facing balcony used by President Ronald Reagan in order to “look”at California, the state which he once governed. But the West is boring. It is the Old East that Lillian is keen explore: the first American states. She quickly gets away from her boring boyfriend and joins a party of progressives. A very peculiar and flamboyant terrorist attack takes place (a bizarre twist with a taste of John Waters), and Lillian lands in the hands of a colourful activist called Caleb (Earl Cave). He attempts to impress her by showing his heavily pierced penis (the role is performed by a gracious prosthetic), but it doesn’t take long before our shy protagonist sneaks away.
Now in New York, Lillian befriends a handsome older man called Lawrence (Simon Rex), who promptly invites her to live with him. She seems sexually attracted to her, and there is a constant hint of voyeuristic, pervy ephebophilia in the air, however the sexual act never gets fully consummated. Interestingly, Lawrence has swastika-themed sheets and even a copy of Mein Kampf in his house. Yet his true fascination is with the United States of America. He boasts that Philadelphia was once the second largest city of the British Empire (ahead of Manchester and Glasglow) and that the US are not an “adolescent Proto-European project”. Is this a statement about the American far right? I have no idea. Our picaresque heroine escapes once again, this time with a stolen bag loaded with dollars to hand.
Two black filmmakers immediately approach her on the streets of New York, and she gets involved in their latest project. They preach “diversity of thought” and assert that they will “fail” should they give up “freedom of experimentation”. These comments seem to extend to The Sweet East itself, a freeform, barely narrative filmic experiment combining manifold camera techniques. Sean Price Williams doubles down as cinematographer, injecting the movie with textures of all sorts: grainy, handheld, black-and-white, reduced frame ratio, etc. The outcome is trippy. Lillian in the Sky with Diamonds. Williams is an established cinematographer, who previously worked with Abel Ferrara in Zeros and Ones (2021) and the Safdie Brothers in Good Time (2017).
The final part of the movie takes place in New Jersey, and then finally in the Vermont woods. A road trip from hell with a very peculiar redemption. Just don’t expect to make much sense of this intentionally absurd story, or to decipher the confusing and often conflicting messages being conveyed. Just sit back and enjoy the vintage visuals instead.
The Sweet East is in Competition at the REC, Tarragona International Film Festival. It premiered earlier this year in Directors’ Fortnight, at Cannes.