SEBASTIAN COLE, THE (director/writer:
Tod Williams; cinematographer: John Foster; editor:
Affonso Goncalves; cast: Adrian Grenier (Sebastian
Cole), Margaret Colin (Joan), John Shea (Hartley),
Aleksa Palladino (Mary), Marni Lustig (Jessica), Clark
Gregg (Hank/Henrietta), Gabriel Macht (Troy), Peter
McRobbie (Principal), Tom Lacy (Grandfather), Joan
Copeland (Grandmother), Russel Harper (Wayne);
Runtime: 100; Paramount Classics; 1998)
"An affectionate coming-of-age tale."
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
An affectionate coming-of-age tale, set in 1983, about a teenager from the upper-middle-class environment of Dutchess County, New York. The film has some eccentric characters influence the life of the underachieving teenager, Sebastian Cole (Adrian Grenier); but, it is his shaggy-haired stepfather Hank (Clark Gregg) who influences him more than anyone else, including his real parents. Sebastian's ambition to be a writer is never developed except through the adventures he goes through in his senior year in high school. These misguided adventures are things that might occur to a troubled kid not getting parental help. The adventures include a hapless teenage romance, an heroic rescue of a kidnapped girl from a pimp, trips into NYC's punk rock scene, and nearly killing himself while trying to prove how much he could drink. He considers these episodes to be Ernest Hemingway-like experiences. The film with all its fantastic developments and its obscure way to tell a story still remains grounded in reality, accurately picturing the wasteland of suburban life in the 1980s.
Sebastian has a pretty Prince Charles haircut, which allows him to look innocent no matter how poorly he behaves. He even appears innocent when he is bleeding to death in either Mexico or someplace in the American Southwest where the film opens, or when innocently engaging in a spicy dinner conversation with all of his dysfunctional family present (Is there any other kind of a family, in teen movies?).
The film is told in flashback from the point where he is bleeding and being nursed by a beautiful senorita, and he looks at a wallet-sized photo of his family and remembers how his family life quickly unraveled when his stepfather, Hank, announced that he's planning to become a woman. His bitchy sister Jessica takes off on a motorcycle with her unappealing boyfriend Troy (Macht) for an early start to Stanford in order to get far away from the family; his alcoholic British mother, Joan (Colin), leaves her second husband and takes Sebastian back to England with her; while, his real father, Hartley (Shea), a successful but egocentric architect, tells him the only way to be successful is not to be a nice person and let no one interfere with your ambitions.
Unhappy with life in England Sebastian returns to upstate New York to live with Hank, who has changed his name to Henrietta and now wears dresses. Hank/Henrietta is undergoing hormonal treatment as he awaits his sex change operation. Henrietta becomes a real mother to him, making the tardy student get to school on time, threatening him with military school if the capable student doesn't get his grades up, and he provides support for him financially and emotionally. Sebastian tries to work out his disappointment that Hank broke up his family with his startling announcement. The kid soon realizes that even if Henrietta is strict with him, he still offers him a mother's love and a father's guidance.
Sebastian's only ambition is to graduate early from high school (needing Physical Ed to graduate he fakes an expertise in karate in front of his gym teachers, in lieu of attending regular classes), as he is restless about his future while not ready to fit into life in Dutchess County just yet. He hangs around with another rebellious student Wayne and while shooting arrows for target practice, meets Mary (Palladino). Their romance is a sexually charged teenage one, probably not going anywhere until Mary professes a love for him. This frightens him, arousing his hidden insecurities, and he moves away from her. It becomes apparent to him as his life becomes troublesome that the only one who is there for him is Henrietta, the ex-marine, who dishes out his/her tough love with a barrage of pep talks and lectures.
The charming Adrian Grenier is appealing to a certain extent as the hero who is both naive and adventurous in a self-destructive way. Clark Gregg plays his role as someone who feels inside like a woman but who has been a man so long and still looks like one, that there is a certain smugness he has that he can be both a man and a woman. But, the story never leaps beyond its startling revelation of a father undergoing a sex change and the devastating reaction it has for his family. It seems to wither towards its climax. Henrietta is unexplained, as if he/she has no psychology and that we must just accept him/her as the one-dimensional angelic character he/she is portrayed as. When we see him hitting baseballs at a batting range and then beating up someone who makes fun of him, then we're into a typical macho Hollywood response to such problems. It becomes apparent that this character study will remain underdeveloped. The film conceives an engaging story but didn't take it anywhere special, as it was a let down after such a fast start and such a promising look at a youngster needing guidance and getting it from such an unlikely source as Clark Gregg. You can rest assured that this offbeat teenager comedy/drama returns safely back to its genre's teen movie fold by the film's end, and that is its main fault.
REVIEWED ON 9/6/2000 GRADE: C+
Dennis Schwartz: "Ozus' World Movie Reviews"
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