Paramount // 1998 // 99 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Harold Gervais (Retired) // April 5th, 2000
I'm going to live a lot.
Stop right here! If you are looking for a big budget high-tech Hollywood action or adventure movie, then you are reading the wrong review. If you are looking for a warm and honest look at being a teenager in the early to mid '80s that is decidedly low-tech and low budget, well, you have found your movie.
Sebastian Cole (Adrian Grenier) is your typical 17-year-old. His older sister wants nothing to do with him. His biological father is at best distant, and at worst indifferent. His mother drinks more than she should. His stepfather Hank (Clark Gregg), well, he has decided that he is really a woman trapped in a man's body. He wants to go ahead with a sex change and now wants to be known as Henrietta.
Sebastian Cole is a classic underachiever with intimacy issues. He's brilliant but bored by school. He wants to be his own person, but does not know how to function without a support system. Add into the mix that Sebastian is very good looking, and you also get somebody who does not know how to commit. His reaction to people offering love and comfort is to lash out and to be cruel. He is self-destructive but also capable of great depth of emotion and kindness. He is your typical kid on the verge of adulthood. This is his story...but it could just as easily be yours or mine.
The Adventures of Sebastian Cole is most importantly about love and the need for family. That the family is not Ozzie and Harriet is not important. It is that the family is there; that is the key. It is what grounds and defines us. It is what holds Sebastian and his story together.
To go through a more detailed plot synopsis would not do justice to the film's, and by extension life's, little moments. Let me just say that the film opens with the sound of a speeding car and then a car wreck. The film unfolds in flashback and ends where it began.
The Adventures of Sebastian Cole is like a painting that strikes an inner chord. Images of mood, color and canvas jump off of the wall and into the mind's eye. Its concerns are the small and the mundane. The everyday lives of people just trying to muddle through. Doing the best they can, learning how to live, learning how to love. Trying to grow up, trying to change. Pain and joy. First love and lost love. Surviving high school.
The film was written and directed by Tod Williams. It was an official selection of the Sundance Film Festival. Hopefully because of that honor and a home video release from a major player like Paramount, we will be hearing more from Mr. Williams. His talents are prodigious. Even though very little actually happens, the film never seems slow. It is content to unfold at a comfortable and natural pace. Williams shows a remarkable amount of confidence in his script and his actors. Unlike many directors, he does not feel the need to show off with fancy camerawork. His bread and butter is front and center and he knows it. I suppose it is one of the biggest virtues of making a small budget film -- everything feels like it has fit into place and there is nothing wasted. The film is tight but as I said earlier, it is comfortable.
Williams is helped by a very talented cast that is lead by Adrian Grenier and Clark Gregg. Grenier has star power to burn, and his work moves the film forward. It's tough to make an audience care about someone so young and in so many ways, so selfish. He carries it off with ease. He is an actor to watch out for. In many ways Gregg has the more difficult role to pull off. Hank/Henrietta has pulled the most selfish act imaginable -- he is willing to sacrifice his family and the woman he loves for personal contentment. Gregg makes you believe in all the reasons he wants and needs to be a woman. He plays the role with as much compassion and fire as one could imagine. It is a very matter of fact kind of performance. Watching, I was reminded more than once by John Lithgow's turn as the pro football tight end turned woman in The World According to Garp. Gregg has that same kind of honesty and integrity that pulls it all off.
Margaret Colin and John Shea play Sebastian's biological parents, and both are quite good. However, special mention should be made of Aleksa Palladino as Sebastian's first love, Mary. She is wonderful. Again, honesty is the word that applies. She is so very real, her performance so in your face, that when Sebastian lashes out at her after they have made love, his words and her reaction come across like a punch in the face. Hers is another name to watch for.
For such a small movie, Paramount has come up with a really solid picture. The film is shown in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and is anamorphic. Colors and fleshtones are natural with just the right amount of saturation. Detail is strong with nighttime scenes and shadows showing great delineation. Blacks are black and stay solid at all times with no bleed or shimmer. The print itself looks good, especially considering the film must have been made on a very tight budget. The only problems I saw were with what have must been stock footage of an airline plane going back and forth. It is so minor however that is it barely worth mentioning.
The sound has been remixed for Dolby Digital 5.1 and it is not too exciting. Discrete surrounds are hardly utilized with most of the dialogue coming from the center and forward speakers. The film is very dialogue and music oriented and everything comes out clear as a bell, though, with no noticeable hiss. No complaints from me though. The film is what it is, and the sound reflects it.
This being a Paramount release...well, stop me if you have heard this before -- there are no extras to speak of. The disc includes the theatrical trailer and that is it. Although I'm glad to just have seen it in the best possible presentation, I'm still kind of disappointed.
As mentioned above I would have loved to seen some special features. Director and cast commentaries are always welcome. It would have been great to hear what went into the making of this film. It would have been nice to see if there were a bunch of sequences cut from the film. Maybe an alternate ending. Even cast and crew bios would have been welcome. But nothing is to be had. Opportunity wasted.
The film really is great and it does speak for itself but lack of extras really do pull my overall score down. Throw us a bone or two Paramount. Either that or lower your asking price. Pretty please?
The Adventures of Sebastian Cole is certainly not a movie for the impatient viewer who needs lots of gunplay and explosions to get his/her movie kicks. It is however, a quiet little gem that will stay with you long after it has been watched. I am all too happy to put this one on my shelf for keeps.
Tod Williams is thanked by the court for his time and trouble in bringing this wonderful slice of growing up to the screen. He is free to go, cleared of all charges. Paramount is once more thanked by the court for doing such quality work on picture and sound but is given a reprimand for the glaring lack of features. Thank you everyone. Good day. Court is dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 99 Minutes
Release Year: 1998
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Theatrical Trailer