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My First Mister (May 20/02)

My First Mister had the misfortune of opening in the shadow of Ghost World, a somewhat superior telling of a similar story. Both films feature a misunderstood teenager striking up an unusual friendship with a socially retarded adult. And while Ghost World is, on the whole, a slightly better movie, My First Mister is nevertheless worth checking out mostly due to two incredible lead performances.

Leelee Sobieski stars as J (short for Jennifer), a teenager outfitted with the stereotypical goth look and attitude - black makeup and clothes, a disdain for authority, and a general hatred for her surroundings. After much prodding from her happy homemaker mother (Carol Kane), J heads for the mall in search of a job. But dressed the way she is and impolite as she is, it's no surprise that every store rejects her. Just as she's about to give up, she spots an odd looking man dressing the window of a men's store. She goes in and applies for the job advertised, most likely expecting to be thrown out. But the man, Randall (Albert Brooks), takes her up on the offer - provided she returns sans the dark clothing and silverware in her face. She eventually does come back, and the two become unlikely friends.

My First Mister marks the directorial debut of a well-known character actress, Christine Lahti. And while the film does go on a bit too long and the pacing could be tighter, it's nonetheless an impressive first effort. It doesn't hurt that the two central roles have been perfectly cast. Sobieski, who has previously played comparatively normal girls, is surprisingly convincing as this social misfit. This is a character that, despite eschewing everything mainstream society has offered her, is regardless quite a follower in her own way. Her look and attitude is so stereotypically goth, it's easy enough to spot the various influences in her life. Randall himself notices this, and at one point correctly guesses that she's got a copy of Sylvia Plath's depression manifesto The Bell Jar by her bed. This isn't a complaint directed to the screenwriter or to Sobieski's performance; rather, it's a testament to both of those elements that they got the artificial nature of the goth lifestyle so right.

But it's Brooks who steals every scene he's in. Randall, like Steve Buscemi's character in Ghost World, never quite found a niche for himself in contemporary society. He lives alone, and follows a regimented lifestyle that J quickly disrupts. This is certainly not the sort of character we're used to seeing Brooks play. His specialty is neurotic, Woody Allen types but here he convincingly plays a shut-in sort of person. He's afraid to let anyone get close, a character trait shared by his Ghost World counterpart. However, unlike that film, we get a concrete explanation for why he is this way. I don't want to spoil anything, but the revelation that comes late in the picture provides Brooks with the rationale for not opening himself up to anyone. And really, it wasn't necessary. As Ghost World proved, some people are just like that and we (as an audience) can accept that. It's as if Jill Franklin (the screenwriter) didn't trust us enough to understand why someone would behave that way.

But other than that, My First Mister is quite effective and certainly worth checking out.

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© David Nusair