Sign up for newsletter >>
Tripping through Tocqueville

Tripping through Tocqueville

With The Sweet East, Sean Price Williams proves himself an unlikely defender of America’s social fabric.

For suburban teenagers past and present, the charter bus has long remained the window to the urban center, the vessel that transports us on class trips as we take in snapshots of American landmarks. It involves a lot of spotty sleep and movies on internal TVs the size of potato chip bags, but it’s an early connection to the adult world, a reminder that the promised land exists beyond our Midwest and Southern hinterlands.

The most important aspect of this stuffy and cramped rite of passage is the freedom–or at least its illusion. Its riders are there, right in the thick of it while contained by a cocoon of tempered glass and adult supervision, which, as our urban hubs surrender to decay, makes these travels all the more important. 

In his directorial debut, The Sweet East, Sean Price Williams is in the thick of it too–his camera weaving in and out of a bus’s huddled teenage masses as it drives on by the White House and the Washington Monument. These kids have more on their minds than symbols of national unity, spaces that commemorate the tenable successes of their country.

They may be a ragtag senior class of South Carolinians who crave belonging, but one thing is clear: they are seeking their tribe. And it’s this innate adolescent desire to find one’s people Americans increasingly cling to that the film strikingly shows may well be our downfall.

From its trailer, The Sweet East looks like the latest in a line of edgy indie fare that caters to coastal demographics. As Lillian (Talia Ryder) breaks away from her tour bus to undergo a picaresque journey of self-discovery up the East Coast, she meets a host of quirky characters played by a who’s who of indie darlings, including Saltburn/Euphoria heartthrob Jacob Elordi and The Bear’s Ayo Edebiri. Williams doesn’t waste such top-shelf talent either; he uses his cast to profile the most pressing issues of these times through Lillian’s interactions with woke gutter punks, polo-clad white supremacists, Pizzagate believers, and Islamofascist sleeper cells.

Shot on 16mm film stock, the whole affair bears the claustrophobic close-ups and handheld camerawork that has made Williams the go-to cinematographer for the DIY mumblecore crowd since the last days of Bush II when his stock rose thanks to collaborations with the Safdie Brothers (Heaven Knows What; Good Time) and Alex Ross Perry (Listen Up Philip; Queen of Earth). 

However, over the decade and a half since he’s made his mark on indie filmdom, Williams has proven himself obsessed with veneers both personal and political. His too-close-for-comfort shots of his subjects are always probing, searching for a moment of truth among the posturing. In shifting to the director’s chair, Williams positions this search for meaning a manifesto of sorts. Like Lillian, he’s trying to make sense of what’s left of our country’s common things. Yet, unlike most filmmakers in his scene, he’s much more concerned with examining the ideas of those who tell us what to think than he is about proving he’s right while co-opting nostalgic aesthetics. 

The Sweet East could have easily devolved into the indie equivalent of cut SNL sketches if not for Williams’s generosity toward the fragmented people that increasingly define America. Like art cinema legends Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Agnès Varda, Williams leans into ideological contradictions. He’s unafraid to probe the stasis of the Northeast political milieu that has kept characters like academic and white supremacist Lawrence (former VH1 VJ Simon Rex) in his dead parents' house and off the tenure track for years.

In the film’s bravest move, Edebiri plays the in-command black female Hollywood director hoping to rewrite the historical epic from a marginalized perspective. But Lillian's eyes quickly glaze over when the filmmaker and her producer (Jeremy O. Harris)’s logorrhea starts spewing. Whether it comes from an amateur imam with a passion for dance music (Rish Shah) or a caricature of a DEI-ified Hollywood player, such blather is indistinguishable for a kid just trying to find herself who keeps encountering ideologues defined by verbalizing their interior monologues. Despite their disparate beliefs, these polemical narcissists have a lot more in common with each other than this wayward South Carolina teen.

Amid this region of blowhards and pedants, Lillian is still learning about herself, her country, and her place in it. Two centuries before, fellow traveller Alexis de Tocqueville warned Americans about the “Tyranny of the Majority” in which a democracy “vested with omnipotence” can abuse it against its opponents. But, The Sweet East is far more concerned with what happens when an aggregate of radicals enraptured by their subcultures overwhelms those of us clinging to some semblance of unity. Whether she knows it or not, Lillian is the last great symbol of our social fabric. And when violence finally explodes over the nation at the film’s end, Williams could care less about the perpetrators’ identities because we’re all to blame.

The Sweet East opens today at The Belcourt.