The Sweet East is an occasionally endearingly weird, but more often excruciating road movie from Sean Price Williams. The cinematographer responsible for the look of the films of the Safdie brothers and Alex Ross Perry among others, Williams’ debut takes a long hard look at the madness of modern America. And then just… kind of shrugs.

Lilian (Talia Ryder, of Never Rarely Sometimes Always) gets separated from her classmates during a high school trip to Washington D.C. after a gun toting MAGA type bursts into a pizzeria. This triggers a surreal journey down the Eastern Seaboard of the US, with Lilian encountering several oddballs who all seek to imprint their ideas on to the young woman.

For everyone she meets; from freegan punks with genitals like a pin cushion, to radical black filmmakers with a strange penchant for period dramas and buttoned-down neo-Nazis, Lillian is fresh clay on which to imprint their ideas and neuroses. Ryder drifts with Teflon ease through it all, absorbing their stories and regurgitating the choicest morsels to the next kook with an agenda.

The effect is wearying, a soup of ideas poured into the ears of Lilian as she works her way down America’s eastern coast. It’s not to say there aren’t stand-out moments: Simon Rex is worryingly good as a loquacious Richard Spencer-like Nazi, and there is an instance of sudden, audaciously staged violence featuring current cause-celebres Ayo Edebiri and Jacob Elordi that suggests Williams has a real flair for a set piece. And he brings his signature ugly-beautiful aesthetic to the 16mm photography, which adds at least an illusion of gritty realism to Lilian’s somnambulist journey. It’s also a suitable visual choice for a film that utterly rejects the mythmaking that tends to come with the genre.

Yet for the most part it’s all edge and no point. The film works hard for its apathy. It’s guilty of what the detractors of South Park level at that show. In sniping at absolutely everything, it stands for nothing. Williams and writer Nick Pinkerton seem to take pains to stop us from identifying too closely with Lilian, with her frequent use of ablist slurs, and her dead-eyed basilisk stare. Ryder plays her well – even through the blank façade of affected jadedness you can see a charismatic performer – but the character is designed to be something of a void. And that determination to eschew anything as gauche as emotion feels like an attempt to avoid any kind of a message, and even that nihilism feels a little half-arsed.

In selected cinemas from Fri 29 Mar 2024