Sundance 2024: “Sebastian” Fails in Its Self-Critique of a Gay Sex Work Story

Drew Burnett Gregory is back at Sundance, reporting daily with queer movie reviews from one of the world’s most prestigious film festivals. Follow along for her coverage of the best in LGBTQ+ cinema and beyond. 

Even Max’s publisher is disappointed to hear he’s writing about sex work. It is kind of a “stock character of queer literature,” he sheepishly admits.

But he promises he’s bringing something new, a modern day story of sex work in the internet age where his protagonist will be without shame. This is the part he shares. The part he doesn’t share is that he himself has become a sex worker as research.

Mikko Mäkelä’s Sebastian first appears to have some self-awareness around its protagonist. His love of Bret Easton Ellis, his angst around only having a short story collection published by 25, his empty espousing of literary theory. But Mäkelä is either too fond of Max or relates too closely to Max to give his film the bite it requires. Instead it ends up with the same flaws as the character at its center.

Despite what Max claims, sex work in the internet age has been plenty explored on the page and on-screen. In fact, every year I’ve covered Sundance, there has been at least one film — from Pleasure to Work to Good Luck to You, Leo Grande to The Stroll and Kokomo City. A common profession, and a common day job among artists, there’s plenty of room for more movies about sex work. But sex work as a topic is not enough to make a story interesting.

Max, the tourist sex worker, is not the only stock character on display. There’s the pathetic man, the mean man, the man who surprises Max with group sex, and the man who develops a tender relationship with Max, because he reminds the man of his deceased partner. These figures may be tropes for a reason, but Max is too enamored with these boring characters as interesting material. Not only is he new to sex work, he appears new to stories about sex work.

The ease of Max entering this profession only faces one hiccup — a prospective client who rejects Max upon seeing a face pic. There’s something interesting — and funny! — about Max’s entitlement and self-esteem being undermined by someone suggesting he isn’t hot enough to be charging 200 pounds. Unfortunately, Max starts working out more and this thread is dropped with him quickly returning to high demand.

It’s not just that the film fails to reinvent its trope-filled story. There are also inconsistencies in Max as a character. He’s framed as ambitious and eager, but then he falters in his culture writing day job and in an important literary space. Of course, an ambitious person can still self-sabotage. Unfortunately, here it feels less like character nuance and more like plot convenience. This was a story that needed the bite of a filmmaker like Fassbinder or, for a more recent example, Ira Sachs’ Passages. Instead Max experiences the same gentle treatment from Mäkelä as his privilege allows him to receive in publishing.

The film is well-made and well-acted with a strong central performance from Ruaridh Mollica as Max and a standout performance from Jonathan Hyde doing a lot with a lot as one of the clients. I just wish the acting and craft were servicing a story that had more to say about sex, sex work, and the literary world.

Sebastian circles around the idea that to be a successful sex worker or a successful author in the internet age, you have to put forth a persona on social media. Alas with Max a luddite averse to even being on Instagram, this feels more like a slipped in gripe rather than a central thread.

Who has the right to tell which stories? How important is persona to an artist’s success? How has the internet changed all of our various economies? These are all questions I care about and find worthy of exploration. Instead Sebastian gets distracted by a middling version of a story almost as old as its protagonist’s new profession.

Sebastian is streaming on the Sundance virtual platform January 25-28.

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Drew Burnett Gregory

Drew is a Brooklyn-based writer, filmmaker, and theatremaker. She is a Senior Editor at Autostraddle with a focus in film and television, sex and dating, and politics. Her writing can also be found at Bright Wall/Dark Room, Cosmopolitan UK, Refinery29, Into, them, and Knock LA. She was a 2022 Outfest Screenwriting Lab Notable Writer and a 2023 Lambda Literary Screenwriting Fellow. She is currently working on a million film and TV projects mostly about queer trans women. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

Drew Burnett has written 567 articles for us.

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