‘The Sweet East,’ a buzzy film with local ties, screens Thursday at The Neon



Screenwriter Nick Pinkerton, who studied film at Wright State University from 1999 to 2003, is eager to have local audiences see his new indie film “The Sweet East” on Thursday, Feb. 15 at The Neon in downtown Dayton.

Directed by cinematographer-turned-director Sean Price Williams and screened at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival in May 2023, “The Sweet East” is a kooky, fascinating, coming-of-age, and thought-provoking look at a teenager’s loopy journey of self-discovery through the cities and woods of the Eastern seaboard. Lillian, a high school senior from South Carolina, is on a class trip to Washington, D.C. when she separates from her schoolmates to embark on a fractured road trip.

Along the way, and in a manner recalling “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” she meets a unique array of strangers who rattle her newfound independence in unexpected ways.



To mark the passage of time and take advantage of the changing seasons, the film was shot in October 2021 and May 2022. In addition to Talia Ryder as Lillian, the excellent cast includes Independent Spirit Award winner Simon Rex (“Red Rocket”), Tony Award-nominated playwright Jeremy O. Harris (“Slave Play”), Emmy and Golden Globe winner Ayo Edebiri (“The Bear”) and Hollywood heartthrob Jacob Elordi (“Euphoria,” “Saltburn”).

In advance of Thursday’s screening, the 43-year-old Pinkerton, a Cincinnati native based in Brooklyn, discussed his script and being particularly amazed by Harris and Edebiri’s improvisational finesse.

Q: Lillian’s journey is very expansive. For me, the film was told in sections as each new world and its strong imagery plays with time and atmosphere as Lillian goes from the security of her class trip into the great unknown. What was the concept behind writing a character that experiences so much?

A: The opening of a movie should optimally provide a viewer a key to unlock it. When Lillian discusses the (science fiction) movie she watched on the bus ride to (Washington, D.C.), she says it’s ridiculous that the characters all came from different planets but spoke the same language. And in a way, in the writing, Sean and I thought of ‘The Sweet East’ as a science fiction movie in which Lillian is on an interplanetary journey but instead of traveling from planet to planet it’s from Baltimore to New Hope, Pennsylvania to New York City. She goes to all these different places and gets sucked into the orbits of all these different kinds of characters who are in such self-contained universes that have rules of their own that really don’t connect to each other in any way shape or form. But Lillian, very adaptable and quick on her feet, is able to adjust to the atmospheres of these different places.



Q: What are some of the themes that emerged as you wrote the film?

A: Obviously the film is infused with the feeling of American lunacy in the early years of the 21st century. And perhaps there is something in the film about the fragmentation of contemporary American life or the degree to which people get siloed into certain world views that if you look at them from an outside perspective are objectively, in some cases, ridiculous or completely vile.

Q: One of my favorite scenes features Ayo and Jeremy’s talkative characters hilariously discussing everything from freedom of expression and religious movements to “Masterpiece Theatre” and the period films of Merchant Ivory. How was the experience of seeing them perform your work?

A: I was on set almost for the entirety of the film and they were fantastic. Their double-act was remarkable. They did remarkable runs and would hit everything that was on the page and give 75 percent more. A lot of the dialogue was mine but you get an extra helping of Jeremy and Ayo on top of it.



Q: Ayo and Jeremy are also seen in a ‘70s aesthetic from clothes to afros. Was that a purposeful choice?

A: I think everyone in the movie is out of time in a way. The contemporary world is not a wholly contemporary world. People kind of curate their existences in different ways that sometimes harken back to different eras. For example, Simon Rex’s character is a very 19th century guy with a prudish Victorian worldview in the way he thinks of himself, certainly in his racial politics and the way he fails to relate to women. So, I think Ayo and Jeremy’s characters have a particularly romantic view of ‘70s new American cinema. I think it’s pretty consistent throughout the film that even though it’s contemporary there’s also time travel.

Q: How important is it for you to bring your film to Dayton?

A: I was quite adamant that I was going to do a full Ohio tour and not just Cincinnati, Columbus and Cleveland. I wanted to go to Dayton. My brother lives in Beavercreek. I have many pals in the Gem City. I’m more than pleased to be showing at The Neon and I’ve known (Neon manager) Jonathan McNeal for many years. For this film to have been pretty well received so far has been great. Sean and I are both pretty tickled by the unlikeliness of the trajectory this movie has had so far.

How to go

What: “The Sweet East”

Where: The Neon, 130 E. Fifth St. Dayton

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 15

Cost: $12.50

Tickets or more info: 937-222-7469 or neonmovies.com

FYI: Nick Pinkerton will participate in a Q&A following the screening.

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