Festival reviews just love to hype a breakout performance, to the extent that one worries about becoming the little critic that cried breakout. But here goes: Talia Ryder, lead actor in “The Sweet East,” is a star. There’s something of Kristen Stewart about her, not merely in terms of physical resemblance, but more in her gift for not just acting but reacting. That’s fortunate, because her character is generally surrounded by extremely chatty blowhards, most of them interested only in the role she might play for them in their own lives. She lies constantly about her identity and where she’s from, and these lies go down easy because nobody is particularly invested in who she might actually be — they’re too keen to fit her into their own mythology.
In debuting director Sean Price Williams’ picaresque road trip along the United States’ east coast, the most horribly compelling of a series of encounters with objectionable people is with Simon Rex’s creep-coded academic Lawrence, positively humming here with low-key sex-pest energy, in a completely different social register to the equally wonderful and gross sleazeball he played in “Red Rocket.”
He offers Lillian a place to stay, in a home decorated almost entirely with figurative red flags, and while his name might be Lawrence, the famous banned book he most evokes is not Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” but Nabakov’s “Lolita.” Like Nabakov himself, the character has a keen interest in lepidoptery, and like Nabakov’s notorious antihero Humbert Humbert, he is queasily obsessed with Annabel Leigh/Lee, Humbert’s first obsession in “Lolita,” named for Edgar Allen Poe’s famous poem, of which Lawrence is also a big fan. When Lillian tells Lawrence that her name is Annabel, he can barely conceal his excitement.
Also bringing enormous value to the table are Jeremy O. Harris and Ayo Edebiri as New York-based filmmakers who decide Lillian is perfect for their next project. This chapter of Nick Pinkerton’s sharp script mercilessly sends up the kind of OTT people who exclaim “you’re so random!” or “this is insane!!!” in response to demonstrably banal coincidences. This section also features the second appearance of a riff on the idea of snitty people from Europe being condescending to Americans on the basis of their country’s relatively young age.
The film is intriguingly anthropological in its take on America as a subject, viewed less through the prism of what American might signify as a nation, than how America might feel as an experience — there’s a sense of disintegration and incipient violence seeping through everything, which occasionally explodes to entertaining effect, but there’s clearly deep affection there too. An evocation of the real-life Comet Pizza incident in which a confused young man held up a DC pizza restaurant having fallen for an online conspiracy causing him to believe there were sexually exploited children being held there, is pure sensation and texture. The scene is not about the forensic detail, the real people involved or the political fallout, but more about the sensation of sitting there in the moment when something like that happens.
That tactile sense of plunging deep into the different settings which Lillian explores is supported by knockout sound design from David Lynch regular Dean Hurley, while costume design by Jocelyn Pierce (“Her Smell”) is also typically excellent, with her work on Earl Cave’s character Caleb, a rich kid having fun living as an anarchist/activist, a particular highlight.
While this is certainly a film that should play decently on initial release and likely signifies the start of a busy new chapter in DP-turned-director Williams’ career, it’s potentially got longterm appeal too: You can easily imagine it programmed alongside the likes of “American Honey,” “Badlands,” “The Doom Generation” or “Gummo” in a retrospective about disaffected young Americans and the often peculiar country they hail from.