Though there’s an initial graphicness to the manner in which sex is depicted in the opening minutes of Sebastian, Mikko Mäkelä‘s explorative drama shouldn’t be dismissed as just another recent example of queer cinema that leans into sexual explicitness for the sake of shock or organic representation. Yes, the sex on hand is a realistic account, and perhaps there’s a certain shock tactic to its inclusion, but it’s more about capturing an authenticity to the titular character and their role as a sex worker in the digital age.
The Sebastian of the title is the sex-working alias of aspiring journalist Max (Ruaridh Mollica), who, in between researching Bret Easton Ellis for an interview piece and feigning interest in various other subjects he’s assigned to, is compiling his own novel, using his interactions as an escort for hire as research to detail a book about sex workers and their experiences with each client. He, naturally, hasn’t disclosed that these interactions are actually his, but he passes them off as the result of in-depth interviews, with his publisher excited at the thought of such risqué prose involving drug-fuelled orgies, rendezvous with closeted men, and the varying levels of conversation and interaction leading up to, and during, each session.
Whilst there’s excitement for the book and for Max as an author, Max as a sex worker has his own personal demons to face, with him constantly worrying how his conservative mother will react to the truth of his extracurricular activities, and the constant fear of being recognised in public by a client. All of this manifests in a sense of paranoia and disconnection that threatens the avenue of both careers; a lapse in his own carelessness as he leaves his laptop out for one of his clients to see how he has described their meeting resulting in one of the film’s more tense moments.
Despite that note, it’s surprising that Sebastian doesn’t adhere to a thriller structure as a genre piece. There are moments of discomfort and rigidity throughout, but it ultimately leans into a romantic temperament, with Max forming an unlikely bond with an older gentleman (a lovely Jonathan Hyde), who initially rejects the quick passion of Max’s usual hook-up structure and prefers to talk to him, with the two discussing art and literature and forming a relationship that transcends sex. This surprising chapter in Max’s trajectory naturally weaves its way into his written narrative, but, rather ironically, his editor doesn’t believe that the romance angle feels real and opts to edit it out, believing the steamier encounters will prove its biggest selling point.
As much as Sebastian honours and respects the act of sex work – both physically and digitally – Mäkelä’s film feels more connected to admiring one’s own true self and that special connection an artist has with their own work. There’s a beauty amongst the eroticism, and Mollica’s performance perfectly encapsulates both of those sentiments with a tender, commanding tone that allows us to easily embrace his persona, even when his actions oppose his best interest.
FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Sebastian screened as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, which took place in-person (and select virtually) between January 18th and 28th, 2024, For more information head to the official Sundance page.