American Anarchy: The director and stars of The Sweet East on their Cannes premiere

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

Acclaimed cinematographer Sean Price Williams and stars Talia Ryder and Simon Rex on talking fast about everything at the Cannes premiere of their hellish American odyssey.

Part of growing up is realizing that most men around you want something from you, and it’s also okay to want something from them.

—⁠Talia Ryder

Talia Ryder descends into several circles of American hell in The Sweet East, the debut directorial effort from Good Time cinematographer Sean Price Williams, which received its world premiere on May 18 in the Director’s Fortnight selection of the 2023 Festival de Cannes.

Noted by the fest’s Q&A moderator as a kind of feral Alice in Wonderland—a comparison Williams says wasn’t in his mind before, though “now it seems obvious” —⁠The Sweet East assaults the senses, fucks with the form, and is, crucially, packed full of Letterboxd besties including Ryder, Simon Rex and Ayo Edebiri. So, obviously we had to stay seated, and listen. 

In the film, Lillian (played by Ryder with a captivating indifference) escapes a high school trip to Washington DC, disappearing into an episodic rabbit hole that takes her across the eastern US, a journey in which she encounters anarchists, neo-Nazis and the set of a period drama.

Williams wanted the film to include... everything. “It’s possible I’ll never get another chance to make a movie,” the director told the packed audience at the Théâtre Croisette, “so I tried to throw in a little bit of everything that I could think of. Once we weren’t stuck in a real world, then I think anything goes, and I wish more movies took advantage of that.”

Actress Talia Ryder. — Photographer… Ella Kemp
Actress Talia Ryder. Photographer… Ella Kemp

As Lillian falls into the hands of various exploitative men, Ryder enjoyed how first-time screenwriter and former critic Nick Pinkerton’s script let Lillian explore ways to manipulate in return. “Part of growing up is realizing that most men around you want something from you, and it’s also okay to want something from them,” the actress said, defiant on stage. “I think Lillian takes advantage of that, and has fun with that.”

This crystallizes during a surreal stay with a polite academic, played by Rex—who also happens to be a raging neo-Nazi. Rex thought his casting as another “likable despicable character” was a direct result of Sean Baker’s Red Rocket, the movie that saw him reenter the spotlight for the 2020 Festival de Cannes, in the Official Selection. “I still am a little worried about it being too similar,” Rex said of his Sweet East character. “But this required me to be very verbose and fast, similar to that movie. I think I just had to apply the same thing, which is, ‘this is a horrible person, why would anybody care if he doesn’t have anything redeemable or likable?’ I just had to make him charming.”

Williams, however, was swift to correct Rex: “I wanted Simon before I saw Red Rocket. I mean, Simon is Dirt Nasty. We love that stuff.” So do we Sean, so do we. 

The 76th annual Festival de Cannes runs from May 16 to 27, 2023.


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