MY FIRST MISTER
Reviewed May 25th, 2002 by David Nusair
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 Ė 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, itís no surprise that every store rejects her. Just as sheís about to give up, she spots an odd looking man dressing the window of a menís 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 Ė 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, itís nonetheless an impressive first effort. It doesnít 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, itís easy enough to spot the various influences in her life. Randall himself notices this, and at one point correctly guesses that sheís got a copy of Sylvia Plathís depression manifesto The Bell Jar by her bed. This isnít a complaint directed to the screenwriter or to Sobieskiís performance; rather, itís a testament to both of those elements that they got the artificial nature of the goth lifestyle so right.
But itís Brooks who steals every scene heís in. Randall, like Steve Buscemiís 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 weíre used to seeing Brooks play. His specialty is neurotic, Woody Allen types but here he convincingly plays a shut-in sort of person. Heís 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 donít 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 wasnít necessary. As Ghost World proved, some people are just like that and we (as an audience) can accept that. Itís as if Jill Franklin (the screenwriter) didnít 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.
Audio: My First Mister is accompanied by a DD 5.1 soundtrack and itís not exactly reference quality. The ample dialogue is crisp and clear, but donít expect much more than that. To be fair, this isnít exactly the sort of film that utilizes a lot of high-end surround sound effects, and this track reflects that.
Video: On the other hand, this 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer is surprisingly impressive Ė especially given the low budget with which the film was made. Colors are vibrant (sequences in the mall are quite good at this) and the darker moments of the film are equally effective.
Extras: The only extra here Ė thereís not even a trailer Ė is a commentary track with director Lahti. Though she does suffer from the dreaded ďletís just watch the film together, shall we?Ē disease on occasion, this is otherwise a very informative little commentary. She talks about the many facets of directing an independent film, and how she came to cast Sobieski and Brooks. Itís generally a good track, provided youíre willing to endure several quiet gaps.
Conclusion: My First Mister is worth watching if only to catch two marvelous performances.
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