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The Boston Phoenix Rebel Forces

Tod Williams defies convention

By Alicia Potter

SEPTEMBER 7, 1999:  Sebastian Cole gets it. Played by the lavishly talented newcomer Adrian Grenier, he is one of those sage, shrewd adolescents -- think Catcher in the Rye's Holden Caulfield or Rebel Without a Cause's Jim Stark -- who see the grown-up world for all its irony, hypocrisy, folly, and self-delusion. No surprise that this teen's battling a wicked case of adolescent ennui; yet, in a decision that speaks to his storytelling gifts, first-time writer/director Tod Williams chooses not to exploit Sebastian's renegade status for existential rantings or bad-boy melodrama (no switchblade duels or "chickie runs" here). The result is a sweet, spare, quietly eccentric sketch of a small-town boy who's living large.

Only two or three newcomers emerge a year, but 22-year-old Grenier is one of them -- a discovery. He's no Dean or Brando, mind you, but the young actor possesses the same sort of dangerous, ripe male beauty: a mop of jet hair, juicy, almost feminine lips, and wise eyes set beneath a near uni-brow. His Sebastian is above it all, perched on declivitous rooftops or looking out at the still-sleeping world from a cliff. Bored out of his gourd, he's the guy who looks sexy in thrift-store garb, yearns to be a writer but hasn't written anything ("I don't want to show the marks of struggling"), and, in one of the film's funniest scenes, chop-sockies his way out of a gym requirement. Yet for all the effortless cool and bemused underachievement -- which falls just shy of becoming a little sickening -- Sebastian is still trying to figure out his fate.

Set in dreary upstate New York in 1983, the film quickly establishes that the high-school junior isn't the only one wrangling with his identity. His tough but nurturing stepdad, Hank (Clark Gregg), has an announcement to make: he's undergoing a sex change. Needless to say, not everyone's eager to welcome "Henrietta" into the family. Sebastian's mother (Margaret Colin) hits the bottle and eventually flees to England; his older sister (Marni Lustig) makes her feelings known ("Fuck you, you freaky fuck!") before zooming off to Stanford on the back of her boyfriend's motorcycle.

But unlike James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, who explodes into pompadour-clutching disgust at the sight of his father in an apron, it's Sebastian who warms to the idea of Hank in an off-the-shoulder India-print caftan. Surely one of recent cinema's most original father-son relationships (or is that mother-son relationships?), the pair are a yin-yang of the inner and outer manifestations of self-realization. This quirky plot device works mainly because Gregg, an alumnus of David Mamet's Atlantic Theater Company, never stoops to mincing camp; rather, in wretched earrings and a haircut straight out of This Is Spinal Tap, his pre-op patriarch is an understated, though almost too saintly, embodiment of unconditional love.

The film surprises in other ways as well. Given that it takes place in the "Just Say No" '80s -- hardly an age of innocence -- the tale sustains an appealing aura of youthful naïveté. In Sebastian's world, freedom is a new 10-speed, and as for rebellion, that's whizzing on the bike down a high-school hallway in a ski mask. Similarly, there's an unmistakable ruefulness, a sense of head-hanging disappointment even, when one of Sebastian's buddies surveys the pathetic prom scene before him and sighs, "Yo, this shit isn't anything like the movies."

In scenes like this and throughout Sebastian's alternately macho and momentous adventures, Williams plies a gentle touch. The film feels nostalgic, to be sure, but not in any subliminal, go-buy-the-soundtrack way. There's no superfluous voiceover; the music -- A Flock of Seagulls, Blondie, Gang of Four -- and the other Reagan-era flourishes (including the use of a David Lee Roth poster as an archery target) are wry rather than overwrought. Williams does, however, flounder to find a framework for his tale, settling for a circular structure that ends an otherwise poignant portrait on too blithe a note.

Still, it's been some time since teen boredom was this interesting. Here juvenile delinquency isn't an opportunity for cynical condemnation so much as for cautious celebration. To that end, the most indelible irony of The Adventures of Sebastian Cole is that it takes what's fast becoming a yawn of a genre -- the filmed-in-my-home-town-coming-of-age-debut -- and, well, rebels.

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