My First Mister

USA/Germany, 2001. Rated R. 109 minutes.

Cast: Leelee Sobieski, Albert Brooks, Carol Kane, Desmond Harrington, Michael McKean, John Goodman, Mary Kay Place
Writer: Jill Franklyn
Music: Steve Porcaro
Cinematographer: Jeffrey Jur
Producers: Jane Goldenring, Carol Baum, Sukee Chew, Anne Kurtzman, Mitchell Solomon
Director: Christine Lahti


Grade: B- Review by Carlo Cavagna

C hristine Lahti's commendable but imperfect feature-directorial debut, My First Mister, is reminiscent of Ghost World in many ways. It focuses on teenager Jennifer Wilson (who prefers to be called "J"), an alienated young woman who externalizes her discontent with facial piercings, and copes with it by cutting her arm and writing eulogies…for herself. Like Ghost World's Enid, "J" has an ineffectual parent (Carol Kane) who, as far as J is concerned, is from Mars (or more accurately, from a 1950s sitcom). Like Enid, J has just graduated high school with no clear direction for her future. And like Enid, J forms an intimate bond with a man several years her senior.

J is Leelee Sobieski's first truly challenging role. She's even better than Thora Birch was as Enid. While she doesn't have Birch's mastery of the deadpan, Sobieski has far greater acting range. Her J is a thoroughly believable and sympathetic character who evolves with the film without abandoning her core traits, until forced to do so at the very end by writer Jill Franklyn. Lahti enhances Sobieski's characterization with some freshly amusing sequences that take us into J's imagination, illustrating her idiosyncratic view of the world.
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To provide the missing deadpan, we have Albert Brooks as Randall, or "R." J desperately wants to raise enough money to live on her own, money that her job at a vintage garment shop won't provide. She seeks a better gig, Los Angeles' Century City Mall, but prospective employers fear that a belligerent Goth will scare away the Beverly Hills housewives. Nobody wants to hire her until she runs into Randall, the manager of a high-end clothing store.

Randall attracts J's attention for the same reason Steve Buscemi's Seymour draws Enid in Ghost World--his pathetic aura amuses her. Randall is not put off by J's insults and aggressive attitude. They recognize something of themselves in the other--both exist on the margins of their world with few friends and a none-too-rosy outlook on life. Randall offers J a job in the stockroom, on two conditions: she must remove the "silverware" from her face and stay out of sight of the customers.

As Randall, Albert Brooks does the Albert Brooks thing. "I'm usually home by nine o'clock," he tells J. "What happens at nine o'clock?" she asks. "I turn into the same person I am," he responds with his downtrodden brand of self-deprecation. Brooks is not simply employing his schlub schtick here. The style is completely within his character, who is as finely realized and sympathetic as Sobieski's J. Sobieski and Brooks

For just over an hour, My First Mister is an engrossing, outstanding film. J and Randall develop an intimate friendship that is a bewildering mix of father-daughter, boss-employee, and romantic emotions. "These two characters are so particular and sympathetic that the whole movie could simply observe them," Roger Ebert has written. Unfortunately, Franklyn and Lahti don't content themselves with that. Instead they reach for a lot more, and achieve a lot less.

Instead of allowing the J and Randall to confront the difficult task of unraveling their entangled feelings, Franklyn and Lahti cop out with an unexpected plot development that sorts out their feelings for them. Instead of keeping their story specific to the characters of Randall and J, Franklyn and Lahti begin to generalize in their effort to deal with larger themes of love, family, and loss, and they come to rather obvious and hollow conclusions. Suddenly this enchanting tale of cross-generational friendship becomes a Lifetime movie of the week, pat ending included. What once was complex becomes clear-cut. Everything is neatly tied with a nice little bow. What a shame that Franklyn and Lahti have created such real characters, only to have their story ring so false. For the first two-thirds, My First Mister is real life. For the last third, it's just a movie.

Review © October 2001 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2001 Paramount Classics. All Rights Reserved.

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