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Sundance 2024: Sebastian, Girls Will Be Girls, Brief History of a Family

Three films competing in the World Dramatic section of this year's Sundance Film Festival tackle the thorny trials and tribulations faced while coming of age. Finnish writer-director Mikko Makela's shallow sophomore film "Sebastian" centers on an aspiring young writer who lives a double life as a sex worker in order to mine his experiences for his debut novel. "Girls Will Be Girls," the debut film from Indian writer-director Shuchi Talati, examines the lingering effects of patriarchy as a teenage girl explores her sexuality for the first time. Lastly, writer-director Jianjie Lin's debut film "Brief History of a Family" follows the intertwining lives of two teenage boys growing up in post-one child policy China. 

"Tell me about yourself," a voice asks in the darkness. As the frame comes into focus, we see twenty-something Sebastian (Ruaridh Mollica), the titular character of writer-director Mikko Makela's sophomore film. He sits on a couch, the camera obscuring whoever asked the question. Sebastian shares he's 24 years old and originally from Edinburgh. Slowly it becomes clear that this is not just an average hookup. Sebastian is an escort, and this is possibly his first day on the job. He goes to the bathroom to prepare, a look of uncertainty and not a little bit of shame creeps into his eyes. Out on the street after the deed is done, he vomits into the bushes, then counts his cash. 

Later we discover Sebastian is actually a character created by Max, an aspiring writer who works at a small magazine and has just had a short story published in Granta. However, in order to have fodder for his novel, Max has decided to live out the experiences of a contemporary sex worker through his creation, Sebastian, although he tells his writing class and publisher his research consists of interviews with sex workers. As he spends more time with his clients he gains experiences like group sex and an unexpected connection with an older gay man (a deeply affecting Jonathan Hyde), but his double life begins to take its toll. 

Shot with a light touch reminiscent of Andrew Haigh's superb "Weekend," it's unfortunate, then, that Makela's film rings largely hollow. Who Max is as a writer is barely developed outside of his obsession with Bret Easton Ellis. Other than scenes of him writing verbatim from his sex work experiences, we don't know much about Max's process or what wants to say about the world. There’s some lip service about how contemporary sex workers view their jobs today, but little sense of the weight of queer history or politics in the U.K. Coming off the heels of stellar films like “Blue Jean” or “All of Us Strangers,” that explore the political through personal lenses, makes this film’s emptiness all the more apparent. 

Star Mollica doesn't fill in much of the gaps; his vacant performance barely even registering as a cypher, let alone a fully realized character. The other people that Max interacts with are either of his worlds are equally vapid and underdeveloped. All of this is a particular shame, as the main strength of Makela's debut film "A Moment in the Reeds" was its rich specificity of both character, region, and politics. 

Thankfully, "Girls Will Be Girls," also a tale of sexual coming-of-age, from writer-director Shuchi Talati, is rooted in the kind of cultural and character specificity that elevates a film past mere premise into something more complex and moving. Preeti Panigrahi is a revelation as Mira, the first-ever female head prefect at her elite boarding school in the Himalayas. Academically ambitious, with this new role Mira is now also in charge of setting the standards of behavior and academia for the whole school. 

However, on her first day she locks eyes with new student Sri (Kesav Binoy), and succumbs to the pangs of first love, or at the very least first lust. The son of a diplomat who has just transferred from Hong Kong, Sri has clearly played the field a bit. He's smooth and knows just what to say to charm the straightlaced Mira, the school’s strict teachers, and even Mira's non-traditional mom Anila (a luminous Kani Kusruti). Talati balances scenes of their burgeoning romance with scenes of Mira's explorations of her sexual feelings on her own. For every close-up of Mira and Sri's hands touching or looking up the basics of sex on a computer, there's a scene of Mira practicing kissing in the shower or learning how to masturbate alone on her own. 

There is also dialogue sprinkled throughout the film that examines how the lingering shadow of patriarchy still affects lives of girls like Mira. Older female teachers still place the blame on girls for wearing skirts too short when boys are caught taking upskirt photographs of them. A moment at the dinner table with her family reveals that Mira's parents may have gotten married young solely to have sex, and what's left of their relationship is less than fulfilling for Anila. As Mira experiences her first flush of sexual freedom, she bucks against the lessons her elders try to impart about how the world still sees women and girls. 

It's in this tension that the film finds its greatest strength. While Mira has to learn how to navigate the world as a sexual being on her own, eventually she realizes her mother is an ally, that she was once a girl just like her, and together they have an emotional bond and a shared female experience that is the strongest armor any girl could ask for. 

"Brief History of a Family," the debut feature of writer-director Jianjie Lin, also focuses on how the shadow of a country's social past affects the lives of its students now, and how the fragile connections of a family can slowly be tweaked by an outsider. Set in post one-child policy China, Wei (Muran Lin) is the only son from a middle-class family. Not the best student, Wei is more interested in playing video games and making it on to an elite fencing team than he is in academic success. 

After an incident at school, Wei befriends Shuo (Xilun Sun), a quiet, loner whose father may-or-may not be abusive. As Wei’s parents (Feng Zu and Keyu Guo) become more invested in the well-being of Shuo, Wei rebels and the cracks in the family's shiny veneer begin to show. Worried about his son's future, Wei’s father enrolls him in an English class so he can go to university abroad. "The future is staying in China," Wei reminds him. "Not for you," his father rebuts. 

Much of the film's sleek visuals appear to be an homage to the first sequence of Steven Spielberg's "A.I.: Artificial Intelligence," down to very specific shot compositions and use of lighting. It's as if Lin were presenting the story of that film from the perspective of the couple’s biological son, whose roughness is laid bare by the robot designed to be the perfect son. In both cases, the weight of the family's future is initially on the shoulders of this first, and for most of their life, only son. Lin’s film asks what happens to an individual in a social system that does not allow for that kind of individuality to thrive?  

Throughout the film Lin and cinematographer Jiahao Zhang capture hypnotic visual repetitions. The windows of buildings, cars driving down the street, students walking to class, columns that hold up buildings. Everything is precise and exact and regulated. The film ends with Wei in his English class, mindlessly repeating words along with his classmates. In this rigid sea of repetition, Wei stops and stares down the barrel of the camera. Will he be lost in this conformity forever?

Marya E. Gates

Marya E. Gates is a freelance film and culture writer based in Los Angeles and Chicago. She studied Comparative Literature at U.C. Berkeley, and also has an overpriced and underused MFA in Film Production. Other bylines include Moviefone, The Playlist, Crooked Marquee, Nerdist, and Vulture. 

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