My First Mister

My First Mister, actress Christine Lahti's feature directorial debut, is a decent, mildly engaging melodrama about the unlikely bond that develops between a rebellious high-school grad and a sensitive, dying older man. Strong acting by the up-and-coming Leelee Sobieski and veteran Albert Brooks, and some comic and emotional touches, make this sappy film more enjoyable than it has right to be. Paramount Classics release, which received world premiere as the opening night of the 2001 Sundance Festival, should generate modest returns for a film that's more likely to be watched by older and nostalgic viewers, willing to walk down memory lane, than by viewers of the heroine's age.

As an actress, Lahti is associated with offbeat and edgy films, such as Swing Shift (for which she received a supporting Oscar nomination), Housekeeping, and Running on Empty. But as a director, she, like Sally Field and Diane Keaton before her, disappointingly goes for an earnest and schmaltzy narrative that contains a heavy dosage of “human” messages and learning lessons.

At seventeen, Jennifer (Sobieski) is a misfit par excellence, the black sheep of her family, totally misunderstood by her chirpy, musical-obsessed mother (Carol Kane). With multiple piercings, all-black wardrobe, and frequent visits to the cemetery, her favorite site for personal meditation and cleansing, she keeps the entire world at a distance. Except for Jennifer, everyone knows that the punk look is a disguise to protect the lonely girl she's inside, that the cynicism is only skin-deep, a shield for genuine fears of facing maturity and responsibility.

Things change when Jennifer meets Randall (Brooks), her complete contrast: a precise, well-ordered man, three times her age, who runs a men's clothing store in an upscale shopping mall. Living alone, Randall keeps everything under control; his only joy derives from ritualistic reading of a gossipy magazine after dinner. Hard to believe, but Jennifer shows interest in working for Randall and, after a series of rejections and arguments, he consents.

A notch above the middlebrow, therapeutic sensibility of a TV Movie of the Week, the narrative soon forgets about the real outside world, and instead concentrates on the evolving affection between these polar opposites. It doesn't take long for Jennifer and Randall to realize that both have been long-term prisoners of their thick emotional armor. My First Mister is a “Reach Out and Touch” kind of movie, based on the schematic notion that, given the right circumstances, any two wildly dissimilar individuals can establish a meaningful connection on the foundation of mutual trust.

Fearing the consequences of its own exploration, the script (by Jill Franklyn) touches briefly but then drops completely the notion that the virginal Jennifer is physically attracted to Randall. Rushing to provide a pat, crowd-pleasing resolution, the movie introduces Randy (Desmond Harrington), a young man who's Randall's long-absent son, and Patty (Mary Kay Place), an older woman who takes care of Randall while he's hospitalized for a fatal disease. The movie sinks to the level of a routine episode of the Oprah show, in an all too-symmetrical dinner sequence in which every character, including Jennifer's hippie and estranged biological father (John Goodman), finds his/her soulmate to the swing of music and dance.