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‘Sebastian’ Review: A Gay Writer Takes Research to Extremes in a Dark and Steamy Sex Work Drama

Finnish filmmaker Mikko Mäkelä takes us into the shadow worlds of niche sexuality and queer sex work in London’s most sterile apartments and grayly desolate hotels in his new film “Sebastian.” This provocative, explicit, and ultimately tender drama stars newcomer Ruaridh Mollica as Max, a 25-year-old literary journalist writing a novel about a sex worker named Sebastian — and to get to the root of the thing, Max decides that he, too, must submerge himself in that very underworld.

As a psychological portrait of an aspiring writer who gets too immersed in his own project, “Sebastian” is never as piercing as star Mollica’s eyes and chiseled face. But the performance is affecting, and Mäkelä brandishes an ambient, lulling sense of style that evokes the loneliness at Max’s core. Internationally savvy gay film fans with a taste for the kinky and sad will want to check out this understated but occasionally quite graphic and sexy new work.

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It’s a sort of fallacy for writers that you have to have the exact lived experience of your subject matter to truly tap into it. “Sebastian” showcases the dangers of that approach, as Max starts to lose his sense of self, his relationships suffer, and, eventually, so does his work as he starts to get too close to it. Cinema, meanwhile, rarely captures the self-aggrandizing and internalized natures of novel-writing, but “Sebastian” somehow convinces us that Max actually might have talent, even if his meteoric success feels unbelievable. He’s got a short story collection on the way, and an interview coming up in a prestigious literary magazine, where he works part-time, with one of his idols: queer troublemaker Bret Easton Ellis, who has certainly seen a sexual demimonde or two in his time if “Less Than Zero” (which he published when he was four years younger than Max, at 21) is any indication. What is believable, however, is that Max’s project is really a piece of autofiction, such is the obsession of young writers today who looked inward rather than outward to articulate experience.

The film plops us in media res of a double life Max is already leading — he’s set up an online escort profile and is sleeping with (in some cases, much) older men for money. It’s bringing him closer to the truth in his book, his editor is pleased with the franker directions of the storytelling, but with that for Max comes waves of shame. His friend and colleague Amna (Hiftu Quasem, gentle and lovely if underused) senses his distancing while also recognizing the leaps in his writing (the film is actually very good at not making literary critique and feedback sound eye-rollingly insufferable).

Max’s encounters introduce several explicit (and, I have to say, pretty hot) sex scenes into the story but they start to get scarier as one client exerts too much control. Eventually, a client, played by a genuinely wonderful and so, so moving Jonathan Hyde (a character actor who rarely gets such a showcase), shows Max kindness and doesn’t even expect sex after all. Max and his bond is best left unspoiled here, as it’s ultimately the crux of the film. Aside from Hyde’s character, the third act brings what feels like unnecessary drama into the mix just to advance from point A to point B — and suggesting, just faintly, the surfacing up of that tricky thing when it comes to queer storytelling, trauma — and you almost yearn for the days when Max was just moving from bed to bed emptily. But “Sebastian” ends on a poignant final note nonetheless, as Max (who is likely out of touch with his family) finds something close to love and understanding on the other side of a long dark night of transgressive sexuality.

The character of Max is so much a cipher for Mäkelä’s inquiries into autofiction, voice, and who gets to tell whose stories (and how much of the encounters Max illustrates in his book will eventually belong to others who read it). Mollica’s performance is intentionally inscrutable, the screenplay leaving him a bit of a blank, but the writing and the actor complement one another. Cinematographer Iikka Salminen casts a sleepy spell over London, even if the production design and locations tend to feel anonymous.

But maybe that’s the point. Max is, after all, a writer looking to imbue his own blank world with something meaningful. He just has to know where to look for it, and by the end of “Sebastian,” he’s ready to write a new story.

Grade: B

“Sebastian” premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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