“The Sweet East” has something of a plot following the adventures of Lillian (Talia Ryder), an independent high schooler from South Carolina who is flung from one bizarre piece of America to the next. At first, it’s a shooting at a pizza restaurant that echoes the real-life absurdity of Pizzagate. Lillian is separated from her classmates during the chaos and is soon roped into the pointless rebellion of some raucous Maryland punks. When she breaks away from them, she finds some solace in the company of a monotonous motormouth neo-Nazi (Simon Rex) who is obsessed with Edgar Allan Poe and decrying youth. Rex’s character provides Williams ample opportunities for American flags to cameo in the background, like how Michael Bay uses them as product placement in his “Transformers” films.
The movie uses this loose set-up to be something of a screed, in which Lillian is roped in by one cartoonish, wannabe shyster after another. Everyone tries to control her in one way after the next, thanks to how they project upon her and objectify her. But Lillian is smarter than that in a way the script isn’t precious about, but it does make for a compelling, mysterious performance from Ryder. It’s a star-affirming performance, starting with the opening credits sequence in which Ryder swoons an incredibly catchy dream pop ballad to herself in the bathroom mirror.
Lillian’s travels take her across America and are filled with characters who should be funny, especially given the cast Williams and company have pulled together—Ayo Edebiri, Jeremy O. Harris, and Jacob Elordi also appear as caricatures who are drawn to Lillian and eventually make her a star. (When she’s both a missing persons headline, Lillian’s also a budding tabloid figure, and that’s one of this story’s more amusing jokes.) But each time we meet these new characters, their bizarre arcs lose individual momentum. Pinkerton’s script is talky to a fault, with its main point being that to engage with our modern country, one must use gibberish. The dry jokes about these people being delusional, of lying to themselves while trying to lie to Lillian, become easier and more obvious. In some instances, Williams’ film is simply just being smug.