There is plenty in Sebastian, written and directed by Mikko Mäkelä, that is provocative. It’s a focused, often handsome piece of work. It’s also never entirely convincing as a character study. Max (Ruaridh Mollica) is a young, aspiring writer in London. He’s got a plum gig writing for a respected magazine and a short-story collection set to be published. Next up is his debut novel, and Max is determined to examine the inner life of the sex worker. To do this, he begins a double life: writer by day, escort by night.

Mäkelä is confronting questions of license here. To what degree does one need to embody that which they are writing about? If at all? Max––whose nocturnal pseudonym is Sebastian––clearly believes that in order to understand the subject you’re writing about your must immerse yourself. This decision will of course come with sacrifices the ambitious young artist cannot quite calculate at the start. All of which is engaging as a premise, but the film takes a bit too long to spark the central conflict––if the inherent duplicity is there, the narrative drive stalls early on. Frankly, Max’s lack of interiority is a hurdle the film’s strong final act cannot fully clear. Mollica is compelling enough and his journey feels authentic, if a bit trite. Character actor Jonathan Hyde enters about halfway through the picture and does some stellar work. It’s lovely to see a talent like him given the space to flex his muscles.

Throughout Sebastian, Max is struggling with identity. He’s determined to become a great, enfant terrible writer à la his idol Bret Easton Ellis, and neglects his day job and friendships as a result of his ambition. This is a lead character who’s entitled and smug but also engaging in moments. One wishes there were a bit more struggle on screen. We see Max in various sequences with clients young and old. There’s a repetitiveness to these scenes that’s meant to lift up his scenes of burgeoning honesty with Nicholas (Hyde). And while it does do that, it never quite feels like Max is slipping away. Sebastian never reveals himself as much of a threat to Max. Whether is comes down to the lead performance or the stilted progression of the narrative is hard to say. There is a smart, shadowy aesthetic to the London metropolis that suggests a deeper, more complicated world we’re never fully introduced to.

Ultimately, Sebastian is a lukewarm examination of identity within the context of creative work that never really clicks until the last thirty minutes. That the final beats are so strong make the first hour harder to digest.

Sebastian premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival.

Grade: C

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