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“Sebastian” Paints a Nonjudgmental Portrait of Sex Work

PARK CITY, UTAH – JANUARY 21: (L–R) Mikko Mäkelä, Ruaridh Mollica, and James Watson attend the 2024 Sundance Film Festival “Sebastian” premiere at the Library Center Theatre on January 21, 2024, in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Michael Hurcomb/Shutterstock for Sundance Film Festival)

By Lucy Spicer

Writer-director Mikko Mäkelä’s sophomore feature, screening in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival, opens with an encounter between Sebastian, a young — and possibly inexperienced — escort, and an older man. Both parties seem nervous initially, but the night ultimately goes as planned. We soon discover that Sebastian is actually Max, a 25-year-old writer living in London who is moonlighting as a sex worker to get material for his first novel. Max tells his publisher that his inspiration for the novel comes from interviews with others.

As the experiment progresses, the line between Max and Sebastian blurs, and Max begins to examine what he really wants out of life as a writer — and as a man. 

“Our programming team, when we saw this film, really responded to this story about the transgressive and liberating power of sexuality and self-discovery,” says Basil Tsiokos, senior programmer for the Sundance Film Festival, before the premiere of Sebastian at the Library Center Theatre on January 21 in Park City, Utah. “We were impressed by the strength of the script, the direction, and especially the cast.”

Crucial to that cast is Ruaridh Mollica, the actor who plays Max. “I got the description to read and the scene we’d get in the audition, and I remember reading it and just thinking, ‘Whoa. This doesn’t come up very often! So cool,’” says Mollica at the film’s post-premiere Q&A. “Then I got the script, and I read it in one night. It’s such a beautiful study of a character and what he goes through and this journey of self-discovery and acceptance, so frank and honest and poetic and meta.”

Meta is right — the examination of Max’s artistic process is a big theme in the film, and Mäkelä explains that it figured strongly in his inspiration to make the project. “In this moment where we value authenticity of voice and experience so much, I wanted to look at the relationship between a writer’s life and their work, and kind of look at the question of whether we need lived experience to write about something or whether we can just use our empathy and imagination to create a story,” he says. 

The filmmaker’s first inspiration, though, came to him after he moved to London and started exploring the queer scene there. “I was struck by kind of getting to realize just how many young queer men were involved in sex work, more or less casually, or more or less openly, and I really wanted to make a portrait of someone for whom sex work was more out of choice than out of a lack of options and provide a frank and nonjudgmental and sex-positive portrait of sex work,” says Mäkelä. 

The sex-positive attitude of this film sets it apart from many others about sex work, leaving us free to observe Max’s development as a character through multiple lenses, including that of a sex worker. “I think it’s important that there was an evolution,” says Mäkelä. “I wanted [Max’s encounters with clients] all very much to tell a story about his evolution as a human being, evolution as a character, evolution as a sex worker. At the beginning, I wanted us to sense, of course, a bit of anxiety, nervousness, but leading toward exhilaration. For me, this story is also about him finding that empowerment.”    

To see more of the magic from the 2024 Festival, click here.