Photo by Virginia Lee Hunter”WHEN I FIRST STARTED TALKING ABOUT THE FILM, I USED to pretend it was a lot less autobiographical,” says Tod Williams. “The big question for me was, why would anyone make an autobiographical film if you're a nobody?”
And yet what's so captivating about his debut feature, The Adventures of Sebastian Cole, is how liberated it is from such questions of irrelevance. In turning for inspiration to his years as a teenage outsider in rural upstate New York, the 30-year-old writer-director doesn't try to draw big meaning from his past by following typical coming-of-age trajectories, with their tidy lessons and the inevitable arrival of maturity. Instead, Adventures is an episodic film that favors ambiguity and relativity in order to find what matters in the flow of experience. In that sense, as personal and specific as its story is, the film still feels as if it could be about anybody trying to find his way in life.
No doubt this is one reason why Adventures met with enthusiastic audiences this year at Sundance and last year at Toronto — where Paramount Classics picked it up. But as the filmmaker admits, its unconventional structure and characters make it a tough sell. Indeed, it's the kind of independent production that's becoming all too rare these days: one without an immediate marketing hook. “It's terrible,” Williams says of his dilemma. “It's unpitchable. It's not an art-house movie, it's not a pop movie, and it's not a comedy. It's sort of for kids, it's sort of for adults. You could say it's about a guy and his transsexual stepfather, but I don't think that's what it's really about either.”
Set in northern New York state in 1983, the film turns in part on the difficult relationship between Sebastian (Adrian Grenier) and his stepdad, Hank (Clark Gregg), who early on announces his plans to become a woman. Hank/Henrietta's decision shatters the Cole family, with mom fleeing to her native London and sister running away to California. Only Sebastian sticks around, to begin his own journey of self-discovery on his way to becoming a writer. At least this is the way he rationalizes his pursuit of adolescent kicks, whether it's the banal death trip of drinking himself into a coma or his beguiling failure at playing romantic hero to a New York City street urchin. As this new wave/punk rebel drifts between sympathetic antihero and just plain asshole, Henrietta is both his whipping post and his subtle guide.
Despite Williams' eventual embrace of his film's autobiographical nature — “It got too complicated to lie about,” he says — he remains cagey when asked to identify those elements drawn from his life and those drawn from his imagination. To get too specific, it seems, would come with its own complications. What he will say is: “I was thinking about someone who really changed my life when I was a teenager, and I had forgotten how much I owed them. I really wanted to express that, everything about the freedom and loneliness you feel when you start being a person and stop being a part of a family.”
Above all, however, Williams stresses that his reliance on personal history was not indulgence but an attempt to keep himself in check as a filmmaker. “I wanted to make something that felt real,” he says. “And I was kind of using reality as my shit detector, to let me know when I was faking it.”
That the strategy worked is evident not only in the film's naturalistic rhythms and dead-on feel for the essential drift and uncertainty of adolescence, but in its sense of time and place — a mark of Williams' biggest cinematic influences, Hal Ashby and Terrence Malick. Devoid of nostalgia and retro glibness, Henrietta's struggle to live out a fading '70s idealism in the Reagan era and Sebastian's own experiments with androgyny seem as urgent and poignant as if the film were actually shot in 1983.
“That's one of the things I'm most proud of,” says Williams, who gives much of the credit to his cast and crew. “You can't pick out one detail — there's a certain arrangement of things that makes the era feel more organic. It's like pre-irony, pre-attitude.”
Which further separates Adventures from the current glut of teen product. That and the fact that it has no real ending. After Sebastian's last adventure — one of the film's most insular sequences, and a homage to Harold and Maude — he simply falls away out of the frame.
“I tried to let the film take me where it wanted to go,” Williams says of this ambiguous endnote. “With the ending, it's annoying, it doesn't really work, it's not a movie. I had the chance to re-cut it after Toronto, and everyone involved would have loved me to come up with something. I just couldn't do it. I had to stick to what I felt it was. On your first film, you find out who you are as a filmmaker, and sometimes it's a shock. I don't know if I'll do it this way again, but maybe that's who I am.”