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NewCityNet Spirited Teen

By Ray Pride

AUGUST 23, 1999:  What was Holden Caulfield's middle name?

In the latter-day real world of bad boys bursting from their self-absorbed bubbles, we learn middle names in the news reports: a man everyone knew as Lee Oswald was abruptly transformed into "Lee Harvey Oswald." But in literature, and in the minds of teenage boys with inchoate ambitions, two names will do—but at least two. Think of teen-boy movie antiheroes from Benjamin Braddock to Ferris Bueller to Max Fischer: why call it the Fischer Playhouse when the Max Fischer Players will do?

Writer-director Tod Williams has his finger on that kind of post-adolescent dreaminess in his laconic, iconoclastic 1999 Sundance entry, "The Adventures of Sebastian Cole." Sebastian says he'll be a writer someday, and he's just doing research now. He watches his family fly apart, as families filled with teenagers must eventually do, particularly when stepdad Hank announces his intention to become a woman. With the story's loping rhythms, Sebastian could be another in a long line of stroppy, gangly male adolescents, but the diffidence shown by both Williams as filmmaker and Adrian Grenier as performer make this pair of debuts far more than a simple, frivolous display of the solipsism of youth.

There's a pleasing lope to the movie's rhythms. Williams takes an episodic approach to the adventures of this easy-going, damn good-looking 17-year-old in a tiny, pastoral upstate New York town, circa 1983. (The town's a blight on the aching, bucolic air of the landscape.)

Adrian Grenier is Sebastian, and he's going to be a magazine art director's pinup for some time to come. He owns a gorgeous face ready for rampant objectification—matted, ratty raven curls, broken teeth behind a crooked cherub-mouthed grin, big, piercing green eyes. He looks a little like Benicio Del Toro, but Grenier is lankier, less oblique as a performer, instead tossing off his feckless magnetism. Del Toro's warped vanity charms in cracked movies like "Excess Baggage" and "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," but it's off-putting too. (There's also a hint of a Leonardo DiCaprio—with a modicum of balls—in Grenier's pleasing features.) Grenier is a good watcher and listener, too, soaking up all the complications that envelop Sebastian. Whether demonstrating a knack for self-invention or self-sabotage, Sebastian seems a typical teen caught in traditional teen rituals, but always capable of more—growth, compassion, an intriguing adult life to come.

Playing Hank-turned-Henrietta, actor-director-screenwriter Clark Gregg—whose first script is Robert Zemeckis' next movie—never seems feminine, yet has a fine time with small and telling gestures. (The wardrobe does demonstrate fully that 1983 was a particularly unattractive time to seek sexual reassignment.) The script's prevailing whimsy is nicely offset by brusque, yet off-kilter outbursts from everyone Sebastian knows. There were moments where I was ready to cover my eyes in momentary mortification—how cute is this going to get? Is it time to dart out for a quick pee?

But I stayed put. I do tip a hat to a movie that can sell a stepdaughter's line to her near-saintly stepdad, "What the fuck is this insane bullshit? I hate you, you freaky fuck!" Or, a brash, ostensibly straight character whose likely eventual sexual preference bursts out of his every pore, mocking Sebastian with lines like, "You little homoerotic faggot!"

And there is one line worthy of undying love: at a movie, Sebastian's first love wants the inside of a sweet-sour candy. She likes sweet. He likes sour. With movie-projector light dancing above their heads, she tells him, "Suck off the sour part and give me the inside." The man who can write that line deserves a prolific career.

John Foster, Cole's cinematographer, also shot Jonathan Nossiter's "Sunday," and like that film, the look of "Sebastian Cole" is rich without being unduly polished. With market forces affecting even so-called "independent" filmmaking—this not-that-cheap movie is distributed by a major conglomerate under the Paramount Classics label—the rich tradition of the promising, imperfect first film is languishing. Young filmmakers are encouraged to bat for the fences, perhaps succeed more often, fail big. But Williams has taken the time not only to find his own "voice," but that of his central character.

It may not be autobiography, but "The Adventures of Sebastian Cole" has the weight of things drawn together with great skills of observation, patiently, over time. I want to see what Williams comes up with next. He's better than a latter-day John Hughes and Sebastian is a far richer creation than Ferris Bueller. And it doesn't seem we'll ever know his middle name—he's an adventurer, not an assassin, except in the grinning litany of pinups in Grenier's career to come.

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