SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL 2024 REVIEW! Catching a rare comet right out of a pool of stars is the jaw-dropping drama Sebastian, written and directed by Mikko Makela. Max (Ruaridh Mollica) is a 25-year-old aspiring writer living in London. He has published some short stories in literary journals and works for Wall magazine as a freelancer. When no one is looking, he’s a sex worker named Sebastian. His clientele mainly consists of older businessmen like Peter (David Nellist), with Max having to clutch himself vigorously to get hard enough to penetrate.
Max is writing a novel in the third person about his secret labors, telling his publisher, Dionne (Leanne Best), that it is based on interviews with “real” sex workers. She thinks the novel is marketable but informs Max that she feels that Sebastian’s sex adventures are getting a little routine. Dionne suggests he shake it up and find a way to make something thrilling happen. Later, Max arrives for an in-call only to find out he’s a trinket in a group sex party. He at first tries to leave, but then he remembers what his publisher said about spicing things up. So he stays while the clothes come off and the drugs come out.
Sometimes, you get hit by an unusually special movie that presses all the buttons. Makela has made such a movie with Sebastian. Memories of the 1990s in New York as a creative writing major spread across my mind like a gasoline fire. The film catches that terrifying corridor young writers get caught in, where they force themselves into questionable situations. Was the only reason I ended up smoking a joint passed to me by a monkey upstairs in a downtown VIP section to later be able to write about it? Just did. Writers are vampires, feeding off everything they have lived through for more pretty words.
“Max is writing a novel in the third person about his secret labors…”
The trick is not destroying yourself in your quest to live something interesting enough to write about. Max doing sex work to turn into stories is not unfathomable at all. That Max is driven to do acts he usually wouldn’t in reaction to an editor’s notes is the best cinematic example I can remember for a dangerous time of life. The audience understands his hunger as Makela’s script underscores the constant pressures in the literary game. Max brings up his literary idol. Brett Easton Ellis (who first published Less Than Zero at 21) as the success yardstick. I remember that yardstick going upside my head plenty, driving me to do riskier stuff for class assignments. Yes, Makela, you pressed some buttons.
Let me be the first to welcome the fantastic, graphic depictions of male sex work that are throughout Sebastian. Makela packs you a lunchbox and sends you right into the middle of the job. The major impact of these scenes is the juxtaposition of Mollica’s young, ultra-tasty figure with those of his clients, who are much older and ravaged by time. At first, there is a shock, but soon, you find yourself appreciating the unconventional beauty of the clients. Nellist’s lovemaking was an unexpectedly glorious sight to behold that has lingered afterward to the point of burning. Mr. Mollica is a retina feast when he is in the throes of passion.
But there is more here than just a meat parade. The acting is superior, with Mollica leading the charge. You can see the deceptions crossing his face like the shadows of clouds. Hiftu Quasem, as Max’s co-worker, is excellent as his tether to a world less out of control. She has a warmth and real likability that makes you follow her across the screen. This was a wholly riveting viewing experience. Sebastian grabs ahold of your attention and pulls it down to the floor.
Sebastian screened at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival.