Jennifer (LeeLee Sobieski) is a 17-year-old Goth with multiple face-piercings and a fondness for graveyards. Randall (Albert Brooks) is a middle-aged salesman with an obsessively tidy life and a fear of anything new. When these two opposites collide, the chain reaction sparks a life-altering meltdown for them both in this wickedly perceptive, critically acclaimed comedy from Academy Award-winning director and actress Christine Lahti.
Desperate to escape the world of her infuriatingly cheery mother (Carol Kane) and mindless bimbo classmates, punk-rebel Jennifer impulsively applies for a job at Randall’s decidedly conservative clothing store. Soon, to their mutual shock and surprise, an unlikely friendship blooms. But even as Randall attempts to show Jennifer the possibilities of her own future, Jennifer discovers the extraordinary secret haunting Randall’s past. A wry, hilarious, powerfully emotional story of reaching out, making contact, and coping with the consequences, My First Mister is an unforgettable film Leonard Maltin applauds as “Wonderful and unpredictable!”
My First Mister 8.0
eyelights: Leelee Sobieski. Albert Brooks. Carol Kane. Desmond Harrington.
eyesores: the last third of the film.
I probably wouldn’t have made much of ‘My First Mister’ if not for Albert Brooks’ involvement in it. Let’s face it: it’s called ‘My First Mister’. The title didn’t evoke much for me. In fact, it still doesn’t. Then there was the DVD box art, which was orange and showed two people sitting on a bench. Incongruous people, for sure, but still, not especially evocative at first glance – even if it makes sense in retrospect.
But, being a growing fan of Albert Brooks at the time, I made a point of seeing it.
I had no idea what I was getting into. I rarely read the synopses at the back of DVD boxes of movies I’m already set to watch because they frequently let slip a spoiler or two. Same with trailers. I usually watch those after the movie – especially these days, when a whole movie is condensed in 3 minutes so that there’s no reason to see the darned thing. Give me a short, cryptic but clever teaser over a trailer any day.
Anyway, all this to say that ‘My First Mister’ was a surprise. A very nice one, actually.
I related to both characters. I totally related with Sobieski’s Jennifer (or J). She is a goth-punk girl who feels disconnected from her peers, her family, her life. She longs for connection but doesn’t know where to find it. She’s slightly astray, but it’s due to her inability to stabilize her emotional state. I totally experienced that as a teenager, even if I had more friends than J does here.
Meanwhile, Brooks’ Randall (or R) is a stuffy middle-aged man with a penchant for routine and stability. He’s a man who gets up every day knowing how his day will unfold. He likes it that way. He’s also predictable, and dependable. I understood that man because he’s the side of me that helped to bring stability to the J in me. Just as in the movie, if not for R, then J would be lost, adrift, miserable and perhaps no longer of this world.
So this particular meeting of opposites on celluloid amused and touched me greatly. Watching the two tentatively dance around each other, befriending each other, then becoming each other’s go-to person was a real joy to watch. It’s the kind of thing I would have loved to have experienced as a teenager and would still like to experience, roles reversed, as an adult. There’s just something appealing in the bond between guide and protégé.
R’s reaction to J was extremely pleasing: even though she didn’t fit into his world, he saw something in her and gave her chance. He got frustrated when she did odd things but was compassionate towards her. As for J, well, she was just happy to get a break, to get a reprieve from the dreariness of her everyday life. R not only became a mentor in her clueless parents’ stead, but an emotional anchor; she had someone to confide in and to riff off of.
Everytime I watch this film (this was at least my third, if not fourth time), I laugh knowingly as the pair learn to stretch their own boundaries in order to let the other in. It’s such a challenge to get out of one’s comfort zone sometimes, but they were in dire need of each other so they made efforts they wouldn’t normally make. This means going into each other’s worlds, seeing it through the other’s eyes. And being patient, trying to understand and/or accept it.
When R goes to the urban coffee shop with J, you can totally understand his discomfort: the crowd is young and counter-culture, a total clash with him and the values he assigns to himself. When J comes to his house, she brings a certain chaos to his orderly life. Watching him put things back in their place as she moves them made me laugh because I’ve seen myself do this. Similarly, J’s awkwardness in more traditional situations made me chuckle, given how socially inept I can be.
‘My First Mister’ depends entirely on its cast to deliver the goods. With some minor exceptions, it’s a dialogue-based film that focuses on human interactions of all sorts to tell its story. What we are doing is spending time with two people, together or alone, and getting to know them, their quirks, their dreams, their fears and their hearts. Thankfully, the cast is superb and almost all of the main players are perfect for their parts.
I believe that this is the first time that I ever saw Leelee Sobieski in a film. I had seen her visage on various DVD and VHS covers when I worked at the video store, but had never really been intrigued by her. She is so unusually strong in ‘My First Mister’ that I started to pay attention to her works immediately after, most notably her offbeat roles. I found that she is willing to take chances where her peers wouldn’t (case-in-point: ‘Finding Bliss‘ and ‘Walk All Over Me’).
Albert Brooks has long been a favourite of mine, but I find that he often makes his characters self-righteous, indignant and whiny. Woody Allen has his schtick, Brooks has his own – and I think that he uses his persona judiciously. But here he thankfully tones it down and gives us a more textured performance. I wouldn’t dare say that it’s his greatest performance, but it’s a terrific one and an affecting one; he made of Randall an endearing man.
Meanwhile, Carol Kane plays J’s mom, a hippy-dippy-drippy woman who annoys her daughter with her forced good nature. She loves to sing musical numbers while driving, henpecks J and probably tries too hard, thereby smothering J slightly. Carol Kane pulls it off marvelously. John Goodman plays her father, a Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski wannabe who doesn’t exactly work out after Jeff Bridges’ iconic turn. And then there’s Desmond Harrington, who brings an intelligence and intensity rarely found in his age group; I’d like to see more of him.
The only true weakness of ‘My First Mister’ is its last third, which feels like an after-school special, giving us a road trip and then turning into a “heartbreaking” family drama. By this point, it barely resembles the quirky, sweet picture we’d been enjoying thus far. And that’s a real shame. While the film probably needed some sort of direction after meandering with its protagonists for an hour, this particular change in tone almost spoiled things for me.
But this was Christine Lahti’s first -and so far only- film as director, so it’s not unusual for it to have some flaws. And while the dialogues were excellent, and most of the situations were palpably real to me, there were some areas where the writing could have been sharper. This is best exemplified by the ending, which rehashes a lot of clichés that probably could have been avoided. While, on paper, it might look appropriate to delve into sentimentality, it just didn’t fit the bill here.
Still, overall, I’d have to say that ‘My First Mister’ more than meets my expectations. It’s a dramedy infused with subtleties that are somewhat rare, especially coming from Hollywood and from a first-time director. It’s not a masterpiece, and it will likely never make anyone’s top ten list, but it has enough qualities to warrant a look – or as the case may be, multiple ones.
‘My First Mister’ is intelligent and emotionally true, and that’s a pretty good start. It may not be novel, a first of its kind, but it offers a few welcomed breaths of fresh air in another wise stale genre.
Date of viewing: March 19, 2013