Moving Pictures
Dec 11, 2023, 06:29AM

Lillian in the Lost and Found

The Sweet East is a major work of cinema art that shines a light for the medium's the path forward.

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In the year 2000, or 2004, or any year before the death of 35mm film production, distribution, and exhibition, a movie wasn’t just a print: it was a teaser trailer, TV spots, a magazine interview with the director and star. They were junkets, tchotchkes like hats, mugs, and letterman jackets. And there were tapes and tickets and people sitting in seats, alone together. It seemed so much bigger when I was a kid, but to Nick Pinkerton, writer of The Sweet East, there’s nothing productive about “anything pertaining to movies that smacks of misty-eyed, backward-looking sentimentality.” He’s right, but the fatalism and nostalgia I feel going to theaters since the turn of the decade is tough to ignore. Whenever the sinking begins, one more movie will come along like a life raft, another movie that’ll make me run around and scream and bleat like an idiot. And it’s all because I must, I must, I must, prevent this thing I love so much from bust after bust after bust.

The Sweet East is one of the movies of my life, one that had a physical effect on me, a movie that I had to see as many times as possible and tell everyone about. It’s only happened half a dozen times: The Phantom Menace; Spider-Man; Kill Bill; Synecdoche, New York; The Image Book; and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. What does this say about me, what can you gather? Almost nothing, but again I’m looking backward, and it’s show time.

The Sweet East hit me like a grenade, a film that asserts itself from frame one. The title card for the production company, Marathon St., appears over the roar of motorcycles, a speck of light growing into footage of a daredevil flying high and crashing hard. These images don’t take up the screen, but the bottom left-third, the rest of the frame fading in, the daredevil just something a girl and a boy were watching in bed together.

Talia Ryder plays Lillian, a South Carolina high school student about to go on a field trip to Washington, D.C. We meet her in bed with Troy, a boy, the first of many she attracts, fly and flyswatter. He teases her with the condom they just used, they talk about the movie they just watched, she says, “it didn’t make any sense, they’re all from different planets but they speak the same language?” He rolls his eyes. “It’s just a movie.” Barrel roll into camcorder footage on the bus, the journey to D.C. nearly complete. Lillian surveys her classmates and sees nothing, a look of mild disgust and pity crossing her face as two kids up front tongue gum into each other’s mouths. No one is paying attention to the tour guide or his American history on autopilot. They’re all busy having fun. Lillian is yearning for something else.

The camera pans across the ass of every student before plunging into a medium close-up of the tour guide as he explains that Ronald Reagan wanted the country to "face west." On the mall, there’s not much more to see—a pair of Quakers played by Betsey Brown and Peter Vack sing “Simple Gifts” and try to get Lillian’s attention. She shrugs them off while swiping a couple of their waters. This is the last time she won’t humor the passionate and insane. Wandering off into a karaoke bar just makes more sense than spending another fucking day under the authority of an American public school.

Lillian sings to herself in the bar’s bathroom mirror as the opening credits begin. “I’m the cat, I’m the cat / that’s lost its black,” goes the refrain of “Evening Mirror,” written by Paul Grimstead and sung by Ryder. “I’m blissed, I’m kissed / Free in the atmosphere.” Lillian has a serene moment to herself, and us, before she plunges down the rabbit hole.

A deranged gunman played by Andy Milonakis storms into the bar and starts blasting away, demanding to know where “the basement is,” insisting that “children are being raped down there!” Lillian’s shoved back into the bathroom by Caleb (Earl Cave), where they actually find “the basement”—a spooky series of tunnels filled with discarded toys and dolls, the murmurs and screams of babies distorted and swirling over the soundtrack. “It seemed so much bigger when I was a kid,” Caleb says. Everything did.

They make it aboveground and Lillian gets her first machine gun monologue from Caleb, who explains that somebody on the internet “Rosetta Stoned it” and found out that that particular bar was using “Cheese pizza” and “CP” as code for child pornography, an obvious reference to Pizzagate, a scandal long played out from every angle. Dated? Not at all—we’re still living in the hysterical atmosphere of 2016. Lillian goes with Caleb and his punks to Baltimore, drums pounding as they drive up 295. Lillian says it looks pretty. Caleb sneers, “Not if you know what’s in it!”

First stop: Tarantula Hill. They organize an ambush on some neo-Nazis in Trenton while Twig Harper, Eric Allen Hatch, and others lounge about and do their own thing in the background. They’ll be here long after Lillian’s gone; the price of her adventure is a ticking clock with each new friend she meets. A woman at Tarantula Hill smokes pot with Lillian and tells her about her abusive ex, a man who hit her with a closed fist. She listens, feigning interest as yet another stranger talks about themselves. After losing the punks and meeting Lawrence (Simon Rex) at the neo-Nazi rally, Lillian adopts that woman’s story, changing little, “closed fist.” She knows this will upset the oh-so-sensitive white supremacist moonlighting as an academic (or is it the other way around?), and she knows she’ll be able to “live off of” Lawrence for a bit, allowing him to drone on about Edgar Allan Poe as long as she can get whatever she wants at Victoria’s Secret.

This well-spoken man of hate, a Klansman in yellow cotton and khaki, is a tongueless talker. “You know I would never…” he insists. “I know,” Lillian says, “that’s one of my favorite things about you.” She poses on the bed in lingerie, teasing him as soft jazz muzak quotes the theme from Sex and the City. Lawrence just stares, frustrated and speechless; eventually, he falls asleep in a chair across the room; Lillian, refreshed after a night in a big bed all to herself, wakes up and overhears Lawrence receiving some of his Aryan Brothers. A guy with neck tattoos tells him “the drop,” a place Lawrence notes has “symbolic import.” Neck tattoos laughs: “What symbolic import, Larry? Are you into this or what?” Yes, he says, but he’s clearly not a man of action.

Lillian isn’t “empty” like so many critics have said—she’s a cunning runaway, smart enough to realize that regurgitating whatever problems the last person unloaded unto her unprompted is the best way to get through polite conversation in contemporary America. Where did you go to school? Do you have a boyfriend? Are you running away from something?

Richard Brody complained that The Sweet East’s most developed character is Lawrence, the white supremacist: besides "racial reckoning" and fake elections, Lawrence goes on and on about “our degraded culture,” lumping in megachurches with To Kill a Mockingbird. “How that lament connects with the swastikas on Lillian’s bedspread, rather than with half a century of plutocratic policy, is never suggested.” Actually, it’s said outright by Lawrence as he shows Lillian in for the first time. “My father bought this house. This neighborhood used to be real working class. Used to be you could afford a house like this on a brakeman’s salary.” Penury destroys people; neo-Nazism and homophobia are simply two of many shibboleths to cling to in a crumbling world that you think has left you behind. Someone’s to blame, right? Like the punks, Lawrence finds contemporary America lacking, and this is his desperate attempt to figure out what’s missing. Like Lillian, he's yearning, but his compass is completely fucked up. His solutions and his ideas are all wrong, but his reasons are clear: a working class America, and the American Dream, belong to the past.

Brody also inexplicably fluffs up the filmmakers played by Ayo Edebiri and Jeremy O. Harris. They’re the middle vultures, another pair who run up to Lillian on the street screaming about how much they love her and want her and “need her.” By this point, she’s ditched Lawrence and stolen the money for his drop; without anything else to do, she goes with Molly (Edebiri) and Matthew (Harris). We’re immediately thrust into an audition, the camera ricocheting between close-ups of Lillian on a camcorder monitor, a two shot of Molly and Matthew, and plunging zoom shots into the faces and hands of all three. Lillian reads sides from their antebellum period piece, and they launch into the kind of logorrhea familiar to anyone who’s seen filmmakers in preproduction. If not, no matter, because it's obvious that they want the same thing from Lillian as everyone else: to possess her.

For whatever reason, Brody doesn’t think that Molly and Matthew are just as vampiric as Lawrence and the punks. “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.”

Give me a fucking break. Beyond her project, Molly’s interest in Lillian is sexual: she jealously watches Lillian dance with her co-star Ian Reynolds (Jacob Elordi), and later knocks on Lillian’s motel room door doing everything she can to get inside. “You’re beautiful, you do get that right? Right? You’re very, very beautiful.” Lillian says she doesn’t like being told things about herself. Molly takes her red-gloved thumbs and forces Lillian’s face into a smile, while she herself frowns. A moment of tension, and then release: “Oh, Christ…” She’s getting nowhere with this girl, and she leaves her alone. Williams even showed Molly eyeing Ian and Lillian in a quick snap zoom; maybe Brody can't keep up. Matthew never comes onto Lillian, but he’s using her, too, not giving her a “lifeline.” Lawrence gave her a place to stay; so does Rish Shah’s Mohammed. Are they “productive” or “constructive” people? No, but neither are movie directors necessarily. Busting up a neo-Nazi rally? That’s real. Maybe the punks are the “heroes” of The Sweet East, but I don’t go by Brody’s calculus—does this movie need heroes?

The neo-Nazis track Lillian down and shoot up the film set. She barely escapes, running through the woods and reaching a road just in time for Mohammad to pull up. “First time in Vermont?” He’s the final charlatan, a crew member on the massacred film set. He takes her to his brother’s compound, and they take a walk in the woods. He calls her “little one,” and she makes fun of him like everyone else. He awkwardly but earnestly expresses his love for America’s “sour apples, the houses that look like they’ve given up on life, and the salamanders, the box turtles…” Lillian rolls her eyes: “You must love shitting in the woods.” He shakes his head. “Everything’s a joke to you.”

Director Sean Price Williams told me, “The dudes in our film are all smart and serious about something. It doesn’t mean that Lillian should care about the same things. But she measures her interest in their interests, and gets out when she wants. Lillian comes from a place, and family of people, who do not care about much, so she is simply affected by meeting people who do care. I think Nick and I very much relate to this experience as teens ourselves.” Stuck in South Carolina, the people she meets on the sweet east are more exciting, more interesting, and more real than anyone she’s known before. They may be dangerous, hateful, stupid, or all three, but she knows she can play them like a fiddle, and she does.

At The Senator on Saturday, I asked Williams, Ryder, and Pinkerton what cinema meant to them; as a preface, I told them this was the first movie I’d ever seen twice in one day. Williams and Pinkerton spoke of the same devotion I feel for cinema, but it was Ryder who I wondered about, what movies mean to someone born in 2002. She told co-star Harris in a recent interview that movies are her “favorite form of storytelling,” and that gives me hope, that this thing I love so much doesn’t belong to the past. After answering, Williams asked me how the movie was a second time. I told him, and the rest of the theater, that this was the fifth time I’d seen it. Ryder’s jaw dropped. There were gasps, laughs, and jeers, but I don’t care if it looks embarrassing or sick, this is something that I believe in. Cinema, a cat that’s lost its black, is all I’ve got.

Sarcastically encouraged by Williams, Ryder, and Pinkerton, I looked at Letterboxd for all of the “hate reviews.” I’d heard enough about what New Yorkers think about The Sweet East, what about Baltimore? Well, I must’ve surprised someone else: “A man at the Q and A said he'd already seen this 5 times. It made me wonder which of the people involved with the film they were obsessed with and it's honestly 50/50 between all of the people involved at the Q and A.”

They’re 50/50 themselves, half right because I’m certainly obsessed, but not with Ryder, Pinkerton, or Williams—I’m obsessed with this movie, a work of art that stands apart and above the people who made it.

Why? This is pure cinema, an experience as much as a story, one told through moving images and sound in montage. It's a movie that you can drink in, each image more beautiful than the last, each sequence funnier and scarier and more fantastical as it goes on. Williams communicates jealousy, lust, and the ineffable through his bottle rocket camera work; the soundtrack and the sound mix propel the movie into the stratosphere; and it must be said that Stephen Gurewitz deserves an Oscar for his editing work, an artist whose contributions make The Sweet East just as much as those of Williams, Ryder, and Pinkerton. The latter's script is remarkable, one full of dense monologues recalling The Devil, Probably, all integrated into a piece that never feels written or stilted, but immediately received. Like Fassbinder, The Sweet East lets the audience think and feel.

Everyone that made The Sweet East are the heroes of The Sweet East—they’re the ones who created this kaleidoscopic masterpiece of modern America. I took it as a kamikaze film, one that ends with Lillian smiling and rolling her eyes at mass death, but Williams and Pinkerton disagreed. It reminded me of something Peter Bogdanovich once said about John Cassavetes: “For the artists, the work could never be the wrenching emotional torment it would be to viewers. Naturally, they had to experience it to make it, but then couldn’t possibly feel it the way an audience would.”

Someone else at the Q&A asked what Ryder, Williams, and Pinkerton thought about contemporary America; Ryder said that Lillian was one of many Generation Z kids “rejecting the phone.” This is real, and you hold onto it. She saw America in the flesh, not through her phone. The three of them talked about how much fun it was making the movie, but again, The Sweet East struck me as a riotously angry film, a caterwaul at the collapse of our pop culture, the infinite political disappointments and their useful idiots over the past seven years, and the very people who came out of the woodwork to criticize the movie when it premiered this year. Lillian isn’t “empty” or cynical—she’s just having fun, going on the only kind of adventure left for a young American.

She ends her journey in the care of Gibby Haynes, a Butthole Surfer playing a Christian monk. He lets her know that the police are coming to bring her home safe, and he too goes on a long, rambling rant concerning his current fixations and anxieties regarding the state of the world, but by this point all Lillian can do is laugh in his face. What else is there do? There’s certainly nothing to say; she's not a windbag like nearly everyone she's met along the way. It's right back home to pickles and fried chicken in South Carolina, six or so months passed, everything basically the same (except now her friends are pregnant).

My friend Mike said that he wished Lillian “talked more,” but to me, that’s the triumph of Ryder’s performance, of a piece with Barbara Loden in Wanda and Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express. Three very different women, all fully drawn by their actors through expression, movement, gesture, and body language more than dialogue. She's vivid in my mind, but it's not lines I remember as much as that first close-up of her on the schoolbus, fed up with her classmates and her future; chastely seducing Lawrence; her unwavering cool even as she runs through the woods and escapes a mass shooting; the slate-blue fill light that follows her around like a sprite. Lillian is the most developed character in The Sweet East, not Lawrence—and that’s due to Ryder’s performance even more than Pinkerton’s script.

Lillian isn’t a superhero, but she's not an idiot. She's a well-adjusted Chauncey Gardiner, up for anything, and why not? She likes to watch, but she never loses her composure or her wits—she is the Roadrunner of this glorious marathon. At the end, she tells her sister that “I was just doin’ my own thing.” And that’s when the world ends: a football game hit by a drone bomb, 65,000 presumed dead, the final shot a zoom out from Lillian’s porch, her panicking family inside as she smiles and walks out of frame, revealing a giant American flag draped over the porch, zooming out still, the soundtrack rising up and rising down like the end of Greaser’s Palace, a speechless American family inside glued to the latest tragedy on TV as we the audience sink back into the cacophony of the outside world. Lillian, born anew, ends the film by walking right past the camera, smiling after presiding over another annihilation. “Everything will happen,” the credits insist, and Slim Pickens is still riding that bomb all the way down to Earth, laughing into oblivion.

This movie has received a lot of disingenuous criticism. Its “provocations”—Lillian’s use of the word “retarded,” Lawrence’s bigoted rants and Nazi paraphernalia, another “mute white girl” used by men in a movie written and directed by men—are cherrypicked details and willful misinterpretations. Lillian is always in control, and it’s the men who are all rightfully used.

American cinema has let me down for so long. The first film I ever went to at the Maryland Film Festival was Ronald Bronstein’s Frownland in 2007, shot by Williams early in his career. That was the only movie loosely associated with “mumblecore” that I ever really loved—for its abrasion, its anger, its immediacy. Many years later, I saw the Safdie Brothers’ debut Daddy Longlegs and thought the same thing: this is urgent, contemporary American cinema. Bujalski, Swanberg, Gerwig, Katz, the Duplass Brothers… they were all so disappointing to me at the time, and they remain so, a generation who had the right pace but were utterly unserious when it really mattered. The Sweet East, like Frownland and Daddy Longlegs, isn’t a partisan film, but it’s political through and through. Maybe that’s what’s bothering people so much: a movie that dares to go out on a limb, a risk for the benefit of all of us wondering what’s wrong with our world.

Because besides its sociopolitical import, The Sweet East is the most deliriously fun and inspiring film I've seen in years. It's made with the brio of a bazooka, the most exciting and inventive American film of the past 15 years, the diamond that finally outshines the despair left by all the of the empty promises and false hopes given out by so many other independent American directors. This movie makes me thrilled to be alive, thrilled to be a filmmaker, excited to make a new one. If I were 10-years-old, The Sweet East would make me want to make movies, just like the teaser trailer for Kill Bill did 21 years ago. I know that because I felt the same thing watching it as I did then: a rush better than any drug or sex, a surge of euphoria in the thrall of something more powerful than you'll ever understand.

When all of the friends and scenes and controversies fade and break away, there will still be a movie. There will be people and popcorn and chocolate and soda. They’ll be sitting wide-eyed, hanging on the dead and the static. Cinema, a cat that’s lost its black, one that seemed so much bigger when I was a kid—one that, after The Sweet East, is so much bigger than ever before.


—Follow Nicky Otis Smith on Twitter and Instagram: @nickyotissmith


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