Reviewed by Colin Jacobson
Paramount, widescreen 1.85:1/16x9, languages: English DD 5.1 [CC], subtitles: English, single side-single layer, 16 chapters, Theatrical Trailer, rated R, 99 min., $29.99, street date 3/21/2000.
Directed by Tod Williams. Starring Adrian Grenier, Clark Gregg, Aleksa Palladino, Margaret Colin, John Shea, Marni Lustig, Gabriel Macht.
Up-and-coming star Adrian Grenier (Drive Me Crazy) "beautifully captures his character's precarious balance of naivete and bravado" (New York Times) in this sexy, spirited and poignant coming-of-age adventure that won critical raves at the celebrated Sundance Film Festival.
Sebastian Cole is a restless seventeen-year-old living in a small town and falling behind in school. But his greatest challenge begins when step-dad Hank announces he is going to become a woman. Suddenly everyone in both families is running for cover but eventually Sebastian returns home to live with Hank, who is now Henrietta. The two of them form a unique family as Sebastian learns to cope with prejudice, his own overheated romantic life, and the non-stop curve balls that life just keeps throwing him.
When I see that a DVD case touts that the film encoded within is a selection from the Sundance Festival, that sets up a few expectations in my mind. First, the movie will be a low-budget, independent effort, and it might have some familiar names in it, but no real star-power. Second, the picture will be quirky in some way. It doesn't necessarily have to be wacky or outrageous, but it has to have some sort of odd quality to it.
Not surprisingly, The Adventures of Sebastian Cole matches both of these criteria perfectly. (C'mon - you didn't really think I'd set up the review that way and then completely undermine my own arguments?) This movie presents a mildly compelling and watchable comic drama that's sure to offer some weird situations and some dramatic surprises along the way.
While this makes Sebastian Cole different than most Hollywood movies, it doesn't offer it any advantages above other indie releases, and I think there's a sameness that infects many of those that we also see here. Certain unspoken conventions affect the movies and make them oddly generic, which seems strange considering that independent films are supposed to break out of some sort of mold.
In any case, Sebastian Cole was a much more interesting movie than I expected, but to be frank, I'd expected very little from it. I'd never heard of it before it arrived in the mail, and from what I saw on the packaging, it didn't look terribly compelling.
Nonetheless, it made for a watchable little movie. Sebastian Cole lacks much of a story - it's more or less than random events of the title character's somewhat odd life - but the participants seem mildly interesting and the film is well-acted. I knew little of star Adrian Grenier other than a) he'd appeared in some teen-oriented movies, and b) he looked vaguely annoying for some non-specific reason.
Despite those two strikes, Grenier turns in a nice performance as Sebastian. Granted, his work didn't convince me he's not annoying - in fact, he made Sebastian a pretty surly, unlikable character - but his irritating qualities made sense in this disgruntled teen character. Grenier was believable in the part and he offers a nice turn.
The remainder of the cast also seems pretty good. Margaret Colin - the woman I want to marry, so I can take her name and be Colin Colin - has little do as Sebastian's unlucky-in-love mother, and the same goes for John Shea as his jerky father, but both are fine in their limited parts. Clark Gregg is also very good as Sebastian's um, unusual stepfather Hank (who undergoes a name-change mid-movie for reasons I'll leave unspecified).
All in all, I enjoyed The Adventures of Sebastian Cole, but I couldn't help but feel a little case of the indie deja vu. The movie works decently well but too much of it seems forced; it's like the filmmakers tried too hard to make it "alternative", despite the fact some of their choices are gratuitously jarring.
The Adventures of Sebastian Cole appears in its original theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, single-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. The picture bears some noticeable flaws but it generally looks pretty decent.
Sharpness is one of the DVD's weakest areas. Most of the movie appears pretty crisp and well-defined, but that's not always the case. Two-shots and close-ups fare best, but often when the image goes wider than that I often noticed some softness and fuzziness. It's not terrible hazy but it's definitely less distinct than I'd expect. Moiré effects and jagged edges seem completely absent, and any artifacts from the anamorphic downconversion for my 4X3 TV are extremely mild.
The print used for the transfer seemed generally adequate, but a number of flaws appeared from time to time. Mild grain seemed evident on occasion, and I also noticed instances of minor speckles, scratches and spots. In general, these seemed like pretty small issues, but they were there nonetheless.
Colors appeared very good overall, with some nicely-saturated tones throughout the movie. No scenes stood out in particular, but the film seemed to display warm and accurate hues. Black levels appeared dark and deep, and shadow detail was appropriately opaque. Without the frequent softness and periodic print flaws, this image would have been at least an "A-", but due to those factors, it'll have to live with a "B".
I found the film's Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack to offer a pleasant surprise. I always expect these little independent "art movies" to have tinny, harsh monaural tracks so it always stuns me when that's not the case, and it's clearly not in regard to Sebastian Cole. While no one will mistake this soundtrack for that of Saving Private Ryan, it nonetheless provides a pretty nice little aural experience.
The soundfield presents as acceptably broad and spacious. Most audio emanates from the center channel but the sides open things up nicely on frequent occasions; it's generally ambient sound but I also detected some good panning between the channels. The surrounds tend toward basic ambience as well, though they tend to bolster the film's music pretty well. Some split surround usage occurs at times, most notably at the very start of the film when Sebastian crashes his car (and no, that's not a spoiler - I can't consider something that happens two minutes into the movie to potentially ruin the experience for anyone).
Audio quality seems quite solid. Dialogue sounds very warm and natural, with no intelligibility problems. Effects remain generally subdued through the movie - it's not exactly an effects-spectacular - but always manage to appear realistic and clear with no signs of distortion. Music - a combination of Elizabeth Swados' guitar-driven score and tunes from the early Eighties - seems crisp and appropriately bright, with adequate bass and a nicely smooth presence. Sebastian Cole provides a pleasant auditory experience.
Less satisfying is the DVD's complement of supplements. Paramount are slowly starting to produce some DVDs with decent extras - The General's Daughter was good, and both the upcoming Sleepy Hollow and The Talented Mr. Ripley should be terrific - but you can't observe that progress on Sebastian Cole. All we find is the film's theatrical trailer. Whoopee!
Well, I found the preview interesting for one reason: it offered some greatly-enhanced sound effects. During one fight scene in the movie, I noticed that the effects weren't as bombastic as we usually appear; punches actually sounded like real smacks, not like the slams we hear in most films. However, the trailer gives them that extra snap to which we've grown accustomed. I'm making no judgment call about this, but I did find it interesting.
The Adventures of Sebastian Cole isn't the best character-driven indie movie I've seen, but it was generally interesting and entertaining, though the tone seemed artificially edgy at times. Picture and sound both seem pretty good, but the DVD lacks almost all supplements. Sebastian Cole may be worth a rental if you like this kind of "alternative" fare.
Current as of 4/26/2000
Official Site--Contains only brief sypnosis and director's bio.
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