Friday August 6, 1999
With quirky charm "The Adventures of Sebastian Cole" chronicles the senior year of high school of an upstate New York youth with many telling moments that don't quite add up to a satisfying whole. Writer-director Tod Williams nonetheless displays considerable promise, and its title role shows newcomer Adrian Grenier to fine advantage.
In an old farmhouse dining room, decorated with a burnished homespun elegance Martha Stewart might envy, an upscale family gathers to celebrate the 1983 high school graduation of its Stanford-bound patrician daughter, Jessica (Marni Lustig). The lively mood of the occasion is swiftly shattered by the announcement of Jessica's stepfather, Hank (Clark Gregg), that he is about to embark upon a sex change that will transform him into Henrietta. Its seismic impact prompts Jessica to dash to Palo Alto, while her mother, Joan (Margaret Colin), heads back to her native England with her 17-year-old son, Sebastian (Grenier), in tow, leaving behind a filing for divorce and a for-sale sign on the house.
Yet, after an apparently desultory summer abroad, Sebastian returns for his senior year, which means moving in with Henrietta as she prepares for surgery. It would seem that when all is said and done, the only relative who ever had time for Sebastian was Hank, including his actual father (John Shea), a hard-working, intensely focused architect with whom Sebastian has had little connection. Sebastian is a cool kid and accepts Hank's ongoing gender transformation, as does the community, to a greater extent than you might imagine. Production notes assert breezily that the film is "just another story of a boy and his dad."
Unfortunately, that's precisely what it's not. When action refocuses on Hank / Henrietta to give some poignancy at the film's climax, the tactic backfires. Emotional impact has to be built up and earned, yet the picture has concentrated primarily on the usual advent of romance and buddy-buddy shenanigans, albeit from a fresher perspective than countless other coming-of-age tales. In short, an opportunity has been lost to grapple with a youth maturing just as his parent is changing gender, an atypical situations, to say the least, for the movies.
The treatment of Hank as a pre-operative transsexual is, in fact, superficial in the utmost. Whereas John Lithgow's Roberta Muldoon in "The World According to Garp" was a completely convincing transsexual, an individual at once brave and humorous, Gregg's Henrietta is merely a granite-jawed macho male in a dress who can pack a mean punch at any detractor. While Gregg's underplayed approach is preferable to easy camp, we have no sense of what's going on inside this individual who, after all, has embarked on a uniquely challenging journey. The only moment of genuine interaction between Sebastian and Henrietta occurs when the teenager finally vents his anger over the timing of his stepparent's announcement, which so effectively blasted the family apart. One does wonder why Hank couldn't have waited just another year or so, when both Sebastian and Jessica would be settled into college. In any event there's scant development in Hank / Henrietta, hormonal or otherwise.
If Williams comes up short as a screenwriter he displays an easy, casual style and a bemused point of view as a director, and apart from the problematic Gregg, he certainly knows how to get the best out of his cast, which includes Aleksa Palladino as Sebastian's down-to-earth yet vulnerable girlfriend. Grenier is impressive in the way he is able to make Sebastian mature before our eyes in a natural, unstudied manner. If "Adventures" leaves you wanting more, it also leaves you wanting to see more of Williams in the future.
The Adventures of Sebastian Cole, 1999. R, for language and crude sexual references, and for some substance abuse. A Paramount Classics release. Writer-director Tod Williams. Producers Karen Barber, Jasmine Kosovic. Cinematographer John Foster. Editor Affenso Goncalves. Music Lynn Geller. Art director Rachel Williams. Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes. Adrian Grenier as Sebastian. Clark Gregg as Hank/Henrietta. Aleksa Palladino as Mary. Margaret Colin as Joan.