Review: ‘The Adventures of Sebastian Cole’

The first indie acquisition of Paramount's new classics division is an exceedingly minor coming-of-age comedy-drama that isn't likely to generate much enthusiasm from critics or ticket buyers.

The first indie acquisition of Paramount’s new classics division is an exceedingly minor coming-of-age comedy-drama that isn’t likely to generate much enthusiasm from critics or ticket buyers. “The Adventures of Sebastian Cole” simply isn’t special enough to cut it in the theatrical marketplace, and probably won’t fare markedly better in video and cable venues.

Writer-director Tod Williams’ debut feature — rather arbitrarily set in 1983 — is yet another tale of a troubled and troublesome teen who dabbles in sex, drugs and dangerous pranks while passing time during his final months in high school. Sebastian Cole (Adrian Grenier) makes his first appearance as a bloody mess after surviving an auto crackup in a remote Southwestern locale. As his wounds are dressed by a Spanish-speaking woman near her trailer home, the narrative begins in earnest, with Sebastian flashing back to events of the past year.

Dysfunctional is too mild a term to describe Sebastian’s extended family. His parents are divorced, his mother remarried. Sebastian’s father (John Shea) is an architect who insists that all great artists — and, of course, great architects — must ignore their families while pursuing their goals. His mother (Margaret Colin) is a heavy drinker, just a few shots shy of full-fledged alcoholism. His sister (Marni Lustig) is on her way to California with her doltish boyfriend. And his stepfather, Hank (Clark Gregg), announces that he wants to be known as Henrietta, because he’s decided to have a sex change.

Less than pleased at the prospect of being married to a woman, Sebastian’s mother moves back to her native England with her son in tow. After a few months, however, a discontented Sebastian returns to his hometown in upstate New York and moves in with Henrietta, who has taken to wearing women’s clothing and makeup while preparing for a happy future as a transsexual.

Sebastian is a classic underachiever, in and out of the classroom, but he nurses vague literary ambitions. Before he actually writes anything, however, he feels he must have adventures — “like Hemingway.” For the most part, these adventures consist of drinking and smoking pot with his buddies, having sex with a girlfriend he impulsively dumps and wearing a ski mask while riding his bike through the hallways of his high school.

At one point, Sebastian and his friends visit a nearby city, where he bluffs his way through a heroic rescue of a runaway girl from the clutches of an indolent pimp. The scene fails to strike a persuasive balance between humor and menace and plays like an ill-advised attempt to make a moodily self-absorbed protagonist a bit more likable. This particular protagonist needs all the help he can get. Grenier gives an adequate performance, but is hamstrung by his one-note role.

Although his character often veers toward caricature, Gregg makes a winning impression as Henrietta. Despite his girlish attire and demeanor, the “stepmother” is a straight-talking, low-tolerance father figure who often uses tough-love tactics while dealing with Sebastian. The best scenes involve sometimes edgy, sometimes warmly affectionate give-and-take between the two. A standout sequence has Sebastian bristling when, during a supermarket visit, Henrietta asks him to fetch some sanitary napkins from the shelf.

Late in pic, a sullen teen complains that the prom, like so many other aspects of high school life, “is not like it is in the movies.” Trouble is, too much of Williams’ first feature is too similar to earlier and more involving movies that cover the same ground. Many of the details about teen life presented here are well observed and convincingly dramatized, but that’s not the same thing as being fresh and compelling. Worse, Williams shamelessly stoops to introducing an offscreen tragedy to provide a climax. And then, rather than properly end his movie, he simply stops and rolls the closing credits.

Tech values are, at best, mediocre. Presumably, something will be done about the inconsistent color and sporadically ragged editing before pic hits theaters.

The Adventures of Sebastian Cole


A Paramount Classics release of a Culpan Prods. production. Produced by Karen Barber, Jasmine Kosovic. Directed, written by Tod Williams.


Camera (color), John Foster; editor, Affonso Goncalves; music supervisor, Amanda Demme; costume designer, Eric Daman; sound, Tom Varga, Tom Efinger, Robert Fernandez; casting, Ann Goulder. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Discovery), Sept. 16, 1998. Running time: 104 MIN.


Sebastian - Adrian Grenier Hank/Henrietta - Clark Gregg Mary - Aleska Palladino Joan - Margaret Colin Hartley - John Shea Jessica - Marni Lustig Grandmother - Joan Copeland Grandfather - Tom Lacy Troy - Gabriel Macht Wayne - Russel Harper Jimmy - Greg Haberny Principal - Peter McRobbie
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