IMAGINE A Holden Caulfield-like character rummaging through the detritus of his junior year in high school only to discover that his stepdad has decided to have a transsexual operation. Thus begins the picaresque odyssey of a young man on the cusp of self-discovery.
"The Adventures of Sebastian Cole" is a quirky coming-of-age satire without the shards of annoyance that rip at the credibility of many contemporary teen movies. If you love "Dawson's Creek" or "Party of Five," this film is not for you. It's definitely not your typical Hollywood teen flick.
Written and directed by Tod Williams, it's a character-driven tale short on plot but rich in character details. Adrian Grenier, as Sebastian, looks like some pouty pre-Raphaelite angel as he strikes all the right chords in a progression of slacker traits that create an authentic feeling of small-town teen life in upstate New York during the early 1980s.
He's neither devil nor angel, just a teen-ager coping with the transition from high school student to the rest of his life. He's too smart to fall for the "be all you can" rhetoric of the 1970s; yet, unlike his stepfather, who believes anything is possible, he has no idea what to do with his life. He considers being a writer but he doesn't want to work at it. "I'm going to live a lot and have adventures like Ernest Hemingway."
The big kicker in this "Catcher in the Rye"-evoking story comes when Sebastian's stepdad declares, "I've decided to become a woman." Hank/Henrietta is sweetly played by Clark Gregg in a bold and authentic performance that avoids mincing cliche or over-the-top histrionics.
There hasn't been a transsexual character as adorable, compassionate and totally believable as Henrietta since John Lithgow played Roberta Muldoon in John Irving's "The World According to Garp."
Williams claims that the relationship between Sebastian and his stepfather was inspired by Mark Twain's "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." Like Huck and Jim, Sebastian and Hank/Henrietta are both outsiders with changing roles in their relationship. Like Twain's creations, the roles of caretaker, parent and child evolve as Sebastian and Hank both search for their own identities.
Whether riding his bicycle through the corridors of his high school, making out with his girlfriend Mary (Aleska Palladino) in his family's deserted house or sharing Easter dinner with his rich and egotistical biological father, Hartley (John Shea), Sebastian has a dynamic, incredibly appealing screen presence. In his quest for inspiration and self-discovery, Sebastian lives further and further out on the edge, delighting in life's absurd moments. Through his exploits, he comes to find that sometimes life is the most extraordinary adventure of all.
What I really liked about this official selection of the 1999 Sun-dance Film Festival was that it did not end with all the mysteries of high school and life being explained in some clever one-liner or prank. Instead of tying up all the loose ends, it merely ends. The implication is that life, like adventure, is random, unpredictable and ongoing.
The Adventures of Sebastian Cole
A coming-of-age story set in the early 1980s about a teen-ager coming to grips with his stepfather's decision to have a transsexual operation.
Directed by Tod Williams. Featuring Adrian Grenier, Clark Gregg, Aleksa Palladino, Margaret Colin and John Shea.
Rated R, opening Saturday in the Angelika Theater.