Something About Liminal Spaces: The Sweet East, The American Dream, and Ayo Edebiri

The Sweet East is a gooey, amusingly written critique on American life and a stunningly simple answer to the question I ask myself every day when I wake up: what exactly happens in America?


Written by Nick Pinkerton and directed by Sean Price Williams, a cinematographer making his directorial debut, the film’s premise is based on high school student Lillian’s (Talia Ryder) journey across America after being separated from her peers on a field trip. She shuffles through a variety of characters that obviously belong to different subsets of American culture– firstly, anarchists who dig through the trash for food, then a pedophilic far-right academic who hides his true beliefs lest it cost him his career, an eccentric duo of filmmakers (one of them is played by Irish Queen Ayo Edebiri, for some reason), a crew member who brings Lillian to an Islamic community, and then finally, Lillian is brought to a monastery. 


My favourite archetype of the film were the nouveau riche, self serving anarchists, your typical subversive champagne socialists; they rifle through rubbish bins and live in a cluttered sharehouse and smoke sketchy strains of marijuana while conveniently forgetting the fact that their lifestyle is funded entirely by their rich parents. This satirical image of the punky splintered attitude was not lost on me at all, especially when it was immediately compounded by the sleazy old man who talked about moths for like two minutes of the film’s 104 minute run time and his raging criticism of the liberal agenda. What was funny was Lillian’s complete apathy towards them; she’s clearly never had a strong opinion of anything in her life, and she’s very clearly being talked at rather than talked to. It doesn’t help that the last 45 minutes of the film weren’t terribly engaging either. 


I found myself questioning the film’s message; was it about the hopelessness of the future? The downfall of the American Dream? The moral dilemma surrounding femininity and agency, the illusion of projection? Was it just a male manipulator’s wet dream? Lillian’s character is quiet and calculating; she’s smarter than she lets on, clearly, however her motivations and values and goals remain a mystery, even by the conclusion of the film. This was something I wasn’t super comfortable with– clearly, Lillian is a vessel for other characters to project onto, but in terms of the actual substance of her character, there was very little, and there weren’t other fleshed out female characters to analyse either. 


This film isn’t afraid of itself; it’s alluring, dreamy cinematography doesn’t distract from some of the more disturbing scenes. The shock value comes from these scenes– a violent altercation between the filmmakers and the white supremacists is loud, graphic. I had chosen a seat to the left side of the cinema, and the sound design with the film was shocking and super interesting– there’s no denying that the surrealist aesthetic of The Sweet East was accomplished extremely well. And look, I had to say it at least once. This film is camp. It had a seat at the table at the 2019 Met Gala. There were some issues I had with the film, but I enjoyed myself immensely, and I would recommend it to anyone who’s here for a good time.

Mandy Li

The author Mandy Li

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