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Sebastian Sundance 2024 review: A refreshing queer exercise in self-exploitation

Sebastian Sundance 2024 review: A refreshing queer exercise in self-exploitation

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Sex work becomes the nexus point of introspection & exploration in this daring film.

This article originally appeared on Pride.

Sex in cinema has become an unexpected hot topic in recent months. Online discourse has showcased that the TikTok generation is, in part, morally opposed to it. During all of this debate emerges Sebastian from Finnish-British filmmaker Mikko Mäkelä, a refreshing exploration of queer sex on screen that borders on exploitation in a way that feels studied and purposeful rather than gluttonous and objectifying.

Mäkelä’s striking film chronicles the exploits of Max, a 25-year-old aspiring writer living and working in downtown London. He’s dedicated to his craft and will do just about anything to rise to the top of the crop of his peers, all of whom are on their own missions to get noticed and, more importantly, published. Max’s work focuses on queer sex workers in the city, and we quickly discover that he’s gone full method with his research.

We become immediate voyeurs into Max’s night time moonlighting as a sex worker. And, while some of his clients seem to disgust him, there are unexpected connections and risks that leave him wanting more. Soon, his second life starts to interfere with his creative work, and Max finds himself at a crossroads of sex, career, purpose, and identity.

Sebastian is a film that straddles the balance of self-exploration and self-exploitation. Max is played by the luminous Ruaridh Mollica as a young writer who embodies the secret identity of his book's lead character. Soon, the lines between reality and fiction blur in ways that both excite and frighten him.

There is a real sense of power in the way Max is able to abandon the norms of polite society and explore the existence of a sex worker, with all of its complexities. But the line between self-exploration and self-exploitation becomes erased when the dark realities of his situation seep in. While some clients are respectful and safe, others prove to be otherwise, leaving Max, aka Sebastian, in some precarious environments, eventually leaving him to spend the night on the streets.

I found the stakes of Max’s “dark night of the soul” without housing lacking in intersectional nuance. I believe the filmmaker clarifies that this disturbing reality is a choice for Max, unlike most people in similar situations. Max is an extremely attractive white male who finds himself engaging in sex work as a choice, not by means of being trafficked by a partner or for survival purposes. These confounding factors left a bit of a bitter taste in my mouth. I think a stronger choice for third-act conflict could have included some of the other immediate dangers that gay sex workers face, rather than attempting to deal with homelessness.

Overall, the evocative queer sex story Mäkelä has crafted feels radical and exciting, especially during these times when the value of sex in cinema is being questioned. Sebastian is a story about queer self-exploration and self-exploitation in equal measure. In an era when influencer culture is saturating media, the line between these two concepts feels especially relevant.

While some intersectional nuances of sex work are left at the door, Sebastian is a bold and unabashedly queer film exploring the boundaries between self-exploration and self-exploitation.

Rating: 3 stars

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