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One of this year's weirdest movies featuring The Bear and Saltburn stars is actually an unconventional but evocative coming-of-age story

 Talia Ryder in The Sweet East.
Talia Ryder in The Sweet East.

There are two key things about your teenage years (from my own experience, at least): none of it really makes sense, and none of it really matters. These are also two key things to bear in mind when you buckle in for new surreal satire The Sweet East. The film is a road movie of sorts, categorized as a picaresque by its official synopsis, but, to me, it functions most effectively as a coming-of-age movie. Despite its absurdity, it's a pretty realistic depiction of teenage girlhood.

When South Carolina high schooler Lillian (Talia Ryder) is separated from her classmates on a field trip to Washington DC, she finds herself on an outlandish tour of the Eastern seaboard. Self-proclaimed Antifa "artivist" Caleb (Earl Cave) takes her from DC to Baltimore before she crosses paths with a neo-Nazi academic Lawrence (Simon Rex) in rural Philadelphia.

She uses him to get to New York City, where she's scouted on the street to star in a period drama alongside Hollywood star Ian (Jacob Elordi) by eccentric filmmakers Molly and Matthew (Ayo Edebiri and Jeremy O. Harris) until a disastrous chain of events on their film set leaves her stranded in Vermont. There, crew member Mohammad (Rish Shah) lets her hide in a shed on his brother's land, where he's running some kind of camp that mostly involves dancercise to 'Bismallah Beats'.

Everything will happen

Simon Rex and Talia Ryder in The Sweet East
Simon Rex and Talia Ryder in The Sweet East

Throughout this increasingly ludicrous journey, Lillian is malleable but not passive, at mercy to the whims of the world but not a victim of them. She's blown from one bizarre encounter to another as if with the wind, but she survives with ease. Ryder's performance is subtle, combining teen malaise and a carefully concealed self-preservation. She seems like a blank canvas and the 'manic pixie dream girl' label could be thrown at her, but her indeterminate characteristics reflect a common adolescent predicament: you're not a real person yet, your brain still not fully formed, absorbing life and experiences like a sponge.

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The Sweet East's supporting characters function as story fodder to propel Lillian onto the next place and the next group of people. When one woman tells her about a physically abusive ex-boyfriend, Lillian recounts the same story as if it were her own, and her place of origin shifts depending on who she's speaking to: she collects anecdotes and carries them like currency. She may attract the attention and adulation of multiple admirers on the road, too, but she's not there to serve their character growth. Caleb makes advances at Lillian, Lawrence fantasizes about her from afar, Molly has a crush, and Mohammad is evidently attracted to her, too, but she doesn't reciprocate any of their advances, whether they're awkward and subtle or brazenly overt.

All of this has a dreamlike quality to it, filmed in grainy 16mm, hinting at an artifice that's cemented by two tongue-in-cheek moments that bookend Lillian's East Coast odyssey. The Sweet East is the directorial debut of cinematographer Sean Price Williams, who's frequently collaborated with the Safdie brothers and Alex Ross Perry on indie movies like Good Time, starring Robert Pattinson, and Queen of Earth, starring Elisabeth Moss. They're heady, intense films that feel more nightmare than dream, while this film stays lighter and brighter despite darker moments, which wash over Lillian and leave her physically and emotionally unharmed.

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This is solidified by the film's ending, which is where The Sweet East diverges from more traditional coming-of-age narratives. There are no grand reckonings for Lillian, no big life lessons or realizations or change in circumstances as she takes stock of what's happened to her. After everything she's been through, she ends up back in her pokey bedroom in South Carolina, surrounded by a fog of cigarette smoke and her friends' teenage pregnancies. When you're that age, it feels like you experience life-altering moments every day: you cycle through different lives, trying on worldviews and personality traits like different outfits, but, ultimately, you'll always end up back in your childhood bedroom. None of it really makes sense, whether it's a road trip through America's fringes or something much more mundane, and none of it really matters. But "everything will happen", as the film's closing title card reads, regardless.


The Sweet East is out now in UK cinemas. For more on what else you should be watching at the cinema, be sure to check out the rest of our Big Screen Spotlight series.