Sex work and queer cinema have a long and storied history.
Just like coming out stories or AIDS dramas, gay films that feature sex for money (often in conjunction with drug use and abuse) are a tale as old as time.
Which is why writer/director Mikko Mäkelä’s Sebastian (2024) feels simultaneously familiar and fresh at the same time.
The film follows aspiring novelist Max (Ruaridh Mollica), a Scottish twunk living in London and desperate to publish his first novel before the ripe old age of 24. Max works freelance at Wall Magazine during the day, attends a writing group on the side, but his secret passion is moonlighting as an escort on the website Dreamy Guys. It is his sexual experiences with (often older) men for money that Max uses as fodder for his book, featuring a barely fictional alter ego named “Sebastian.”
For the first act of the film, Max tells himself that the sex work is research. Almost immediately, however, there are cracks in his façade. He has sold the book to his agent Dionne (Leanne Best) on the argument that the book reflects modern youth’s attitudes about having sex for money; that is: stigma-free. But while this may be true of several other escorts he meets along the way, Max’s desire to be taken seriously in the annals of queer literature (along side his idol, Bret Easton Ellis) frequently conflicts with his thesis. Why else does he eschew face pictures in his Dreamy Guys profile, avoid social media, and bail on industry parties when he sees a client?
The reality is that Max is a hypocrite and Sebastian is simultaneously an interrogation of the character’s struggle, in addition to his journey towards acceptance…or inevitable flame-out.
The smartest thing Mäkelä does is acknowledge that Sebastian is merely the latest in a long line of queers films about sex work. At one point Max derides Dionne’s argument that in order to sell the book, the “character” must a) do more than sleep with older men, b) encounter new (ie: dangerous or sensational) experiences, and c) avoid romance with a john. Considering that all of her suggestions have been done a million times before, these discussions play like Mäkelä’s acknowledgement – and simultaneous disavowal – of the tired tropes of gay sex work films.
For a time, it seems as though Sebastian is content to play in a different sandbox when Max unexpectedly meets and (seemingly) falls for a wealthy widower named Nicholas (Jonathan Hyde). Unlike other clients, Nicholas is both cultured and sensitive; in truth, he’s a little too movie perfect, but he stands in stark contrast to demanding businessman Daniel (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson).
In the end, the film deftly walks a fine line between upending expectations and adhering to them. This is not the sensational story of a boy whose life is ruined by hustling, nor is it a “Harold and Maud” love story (as Dionne notes of his later drafts).
By film’s end, Sebastian reveals it is actually a variation of the usual coming out story: this is one twunk’s journey from self-proclaimed acceptance to actual acceptance of both his serious writing *and* his sex work. The fact that Max remains a somewhat self-absorbed narcissist gay throughout is hardly a surprise, though there’s something to be said about the film’s ability to balance his incremental growth while still portraying sex work in a frank (but not exploitative) way.*
*It is worth noting that the film does feature a good amount of both simulated sex and some full frontal male nudity. Between this, Rotting in the Sun, Passages, and to a slightly lesser extent All of Us Strangers, gay sex in queer cinema is finally approaching something of an authentic tipping point.
The performances are uniformly excellent, though aside from Hyde’s absolutely endearing performance, few of the supporting characters get much to do.
In the end, this is almost exclusively Mollica’s film and he makes a meal of the role of Max. Even when the film struggles to differentiate itself from traditional modes of storytelling, Mollica’s performance as Max – a compelling mixture of self-assured confidence, delusion, and quivering self-doubt – anchors Sebastian. It’s a captivating lead performance that boads well for the actor’s future. 4/5
Sebastian played at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival