My First Mister

"I'm trying to share my taste with you, and you're torturing me with yours."

There’s a terrific movie somewhere inside Christine Lahti’s My First Mister, but it’s kept hidden by the trite trappings of a Lifetime movie-of-the-week. The sometimes-clever, formulaically sappy script should please the undiscerning — or at least those who haven’t seen Ghost World — even despite the ludicrous late-movie “twists” and drawn-out, soap-opera plotlines. Albert Brooks and Leelee Sobieski are as reliable a pair of thespians as you are likely to find. But the movie stubbornly refuses to take advantage of these things, abandoning its effortlessly whimsical tone to be a Serious Drama. Maybe it would have worked better on Lifetime.

Jennifer (Sobieski) is a fairly typical Goth Chick, with piercings, suicidal tendencies, no friends, a cemetery fetish and a mother who Just Doesn’t Understand. After being lectured on her bleak future, she decides to go out and get a job. She stumbles on a department store, where the manager Robert (Albert Brooks) tells her to get the metal out of her face and come back looking like a human being. When she complies, Robert puts her in the back room stocking merchandise. Both of them profoundly lonely people, they form a curious, platonic friendship.

I don’t much like these plots. You know the ones: churlish, middle-aged-or-older grump’s heart softens when he meets a tot-or-teenager. What sets — or, at least, could have set — My First Mister apart is that it is the teenager’s transformation at the heart of the movie and not the other way around. Had it settled for that simple, beguiling idea, we might have been looking at something more than merely watchable. But first-time director Lahti wouldn’t have it that way. She decides to add all kinds of eccentricities: a nurse girlfriend, a disease and, finally, a long-lost son.

All of the extraneous elements convolute the story beyond all reason. Not only that, but they’re utterly irrelevant; there’s a point about two-thirds of the way through where the movie has clearly said all that it was going to say, and the remainder of the footage is filler, plain and simple. After crafting the beginnings of a delicate character study, Lahti decides to turn the last act into a Hallmark-Card weepfest, laying the sentimentality on so thick that I had trouble breathing.

Brooks and Sobieski are typically solid, with the former’s gratifying cynicism keeping the film from plunging completely into the realm of sap. Just a few weeks ago, I was lamenting the lack of a real role for the incredibly talented Sobieski; here, finally, is a film that gives her a chance. Her performance is convincing even when the script she is reading from is doing back flips to evoke some sort of a reaction when all it needs is a close-up of her. This is one of the most blatant cases in recent memory of actors transcending their material.

My First Mister is so similar to Ghost World, you wonder if my aversion to it is simply a result of my seeing it second. I don’t think so. While the other film, with Thora Birch in the lead role, possessed a keen perceptiveness and a real sense of subtlety, this one delivers its “messages” with a jackhammer and is more concerned with whether we cry than doing its characters justice. My First Mister was, inexplicably, an arthouse release, but it will go down in history — as well as on the video shelves — alongside the likes of Stepmom and other unabashed, glaringly phony weepies.

-- Eugene Novikov

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Screening Log

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