The Sweet East
, a hallucinatory road-trip movie that ambles up America’s eastern seaboard, is in Washington, D.C.
The movie seems to want to locate the soul of America, its normal-person political or cultural center, but instead finds only cultish, wackadoodle oddities seeking to serve obscure agendas. It’s a phantasmagorical tour of a fractured America’s weird fringes.
The movie follows Lillian, a high school senior from South Carolina, who gets lost on a class field trip to the Capitol and then finds herself immersed in a string of weird subcultures. There’s an anarcho-punk collective run by a secretly rich kid, a sad middle-aged academic hiding his white nationalist associations, a pair of fast-talking black indie filmmakers who want to cast Lillian in their movie alongside a tabloid hunk, and even a gaggle of woodsy, wannabe Islamic terrorists whose main interest seems to be electronic dance music. There isn’t a plot so much as a shaggy series of loosely linked events. It’s meandering, episodic, a journey more than a destination—but then, so was
Maybe a better comparison is
Easy Rider, another road trip movie across weird America that arrived at a moment of social and political upheaval. What’s remarkable about The Sweet East‘s approach is how unconcerned it is with judging its various oddballs and outcasts. It’s not that it’s nice to its subculture characters, exactly—they tend to come across as ridiculous and pathetic. But there are no pointed monologues designed to tell viewers how to feel, no scenes or sequences clearly intended to say
these people are Good or
these people are Bad. Instead, the movie repeatedly asserts something more like
these people are bizarre and self-absorbed in ways that manage to be funny, sad, empathetic, and alienating, sometimes all at once.
The Sweet East has been marketed as an anti-political correctness movie, a sneer at the trite mores of normie Hollywood. Its protagonist, played with unassuming magnetism by Talia Ryder, casually and repeatedly uses the word “retard.” The movie delivers a semi-sympathetic portrayal of its lovelorn, conspiratorial, white nationalist character, played with awkward tenderness by Simon Rex, who spends much of his screen time expounding on the crassness of contemporary culture.
The antifa-linked anarchist punk gang Lillian hooks up with at the movie’s start turns out to be just a bunch of disorganized losers.
But it’s more like a movie that simply doesn’t acknowledge that the one-note virtue-signaling moral worldview of mainstream liberalism even exists. It doesn’t endorse any of the worldviews or characters it depicts; it just allows those ideas and people to exist, observing them in their environments without casting singular judgments.
t’s set in an impishly exaggerated yet immediately recognizable world where just about everyone and everything is stranger and less coherent than the schematic, scolding moralists of the establishment could possibly imagine. There’s no normie center to be found, no American mainstream, just fringes and subcultures exploring their own idiosyncratic ways of living. Sometimes it’s sad. Sometimes it’s terrifying. But mostly it’s kind of wild and funny.
Directed by Sean Price Williams from a screenplay by idiosyncratic critic Nick Pinkerton feels like a low-key turning point, a sign of where dissident culture is going. It’s rough enough around the edges that it won’t be to everyone’s taste, but if this is where things are going, I’m here for it.