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‘Sebastian’ review: Dir. Mikko Mäkelä [Sundance]

by Kat Hughes

In the last couple of months alone, there have been several amazing queer stories released into cinemas. Andrew Haigh’s All of Us Strangers is a devastating look at grief and longing, and Femme from directing duo Sam H. Freeman and Ng Choon Ping, is an outstanding revenge thriller. Not to be outdone, this year’s Sundance festival is packed with queer stories vying for attention, including Mikko Mäkelä’s Sebastian.

Ruaridh Mollica and David Nellist appear in Sebastian by Mikko Mäkelä, an official selection of the World Dramatic Competition at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Set in London, Sebastian follows writer Max (Ruaridh Mollica) as he researches his debut novel by becoming a male sex worker. The viewer is thrust into this world immediately and those with an aversion to sex in movies will likely want to avoid Sebastian at all costs as there are several rather explicit scenes of a sexual nature. These are not meant to be shocking, but rather portray Max’s experiences as a sex worker and how they inform and inspire his literary creation. 

At the same time as meeting clients, Max is riding the tricky seas as a freelance writer for a high-end magazine. Early doors, he is assigned an interview with his hero, Brett Easton Ellis, but as Max becomes more fascinated with his secret sex work life, he risks his position. The fickleness of the magazine world, and how tricky it is to navigate as a freelance writer, is horribly accurate and will likely trigger most of us tasked with writing about Sebastian.

A fascinating portrayal of ambition and exploration, Sebastian presents yet another facet to queer cinema

Interestingly, whereas the ‘safe’ world of writing is portrayed as cutthroat and underhand, the overly stigmatised environment of sex work is shown in a much softer light. Those looking for darkness in Max’s experiences will be left wanting as this is a positive portrayal of the industry. The seediness is removed and is replaced by a much more transactional attitude. The work is so devoid of emotion that Max has to embellish to spice up his stories for the novel. With the exception of one client, Max is merely providing a service. The exception, played by Jonathan Hyde, becomes Max’s undoing. As he develops feelings for the older man, his story takes on a new direction, but one that does not conform to what his publishers want to read. 

The bulk of Sebastian explores Max’s inner struggle between his drive and ambition, and his heart and feelings. These warring factions are fascinating to watch play against one another, and Ruaridh Mollica is superb in the role. He communicates Max’s turmoil silently through his face and body posture and makes what could have been an irritating character, empathetic. Writer and director Mäkelä helps emphasise aspects of Max’s journey through simple visuals and actions too. When first introduced, Max is very much a top. He is playing in the realm of sex work and is in full control. As Max becomes more immersed, he ends up at the bottom, highlighting how his control and focus has been lost. It is a clever manoeuvre that enables Sebastian to sidestep scenes with someone pointing out what a mess he is. 

A fascinating portrayal of ambition and exploration, Sebastian presents yet another facet to queer cinema. For far too long, queer cinema has been pushed into boxes, and to see filmmakers suddenly appear with such varied themes under the banner of queer cinema, is exhilarating. Though sadly not likely to break through as well as either All of Us Strangers and Femme, Sebastian remains an enticing prospect that should be sought out upon release. 

Sebastian

Kat Hughes

Sebastian

Summary

With a stellar turn by lead Ruaridh Mollica, Sebastian presents both sex work and queerness in a refreshingly honest way. 

4

Sebastian was reviewed at Sundance 2024. 

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