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'My First Mister' masters mismatched romance.

When I was younger, my feminist sensibilities were frequently offended by the incessant depiction of relations between older men and younger women in Hollywood films. However, as I've matured, I've gained the wisdom to see that these are beautiful, natural relationships that are the appropriate subject of cinema.

So I was intrigued by the prospect of My First Mister, about a friendship between a 17-year-old goth girl and a 49-year-old clothing-store manager. Mostly, I was happy to see that this film was directed by a woman (Christine Lahti, probably best known as Dr. Kate Austin on Chicago Hope) and written by another woman (Jill Franklyn). See, with two women at the helm, no matter what happened between the young girl and the mature man, it would be politically correct.

So here I go, looking for politically correct edification on the ways of intergenerational love (or what the French just call "love") and it's like the old switcheroo has been pulled on yours truly, because there are no scenes of the seasoned man and the consenting teen getting all hot and sweaty. Instead, My First Mister turns out to be incredibly funny and, goddammit, even touching. I mean touching, ferchrissakes! Is that what we want in our established-man-meets-inhumanly-pretty-teen movies?

The funny is mostly because of Albert Brooks, who is, well, funny. But also, he gives a seamless performance as Randall Harris, the clothing-store manager who is afraid of everything except clowns. For some reason, Randall gives a job to Jennifer "J" Wilson, a highly pierced individual who rebels against her bubbly mother by conforming precisely to every goth girl stereotype. She hangs around graveyards, she drinks excessive amounts of cappuccino, she scowls and looks sullen, and she writes really bad poetry while imagining that she's Sylvia Plath. And, of course, she has a lot of black clothing.

Randall, strangely, is completely un-goth. Sure, he's pale, but his clothes are light tones that do nothing to accentuate his paleness, and his house is not decorated with skulls and black lace, and, worst of all, he drinks Sanka. Basically, decaffeinated coffee is to goths what fun is to the Taliban.

However, in good goth girl fashion, Jennifer (who prefers to call herself "J" because she's such a freakin' rebel that she actually uses a letter instead of a name) has no friends. So when Randall is vaguely nice to her, she decides that he's her best friend.

This is where the film gets touching. Touching is very hard to do without falling into maudlin or bathetic, and My First Mister is about 75 percent effective here. Brooks' acting helps a lot, because he can convey a numbed pain without seeming schmaltzy. One gets the feeling that he probably has first-hand experience with numbed pain from doing movies like The Muse and Dr. Dolittle. Leelee Sobieski, who plays J, is not quite so seamless. Though this is her best performance, and she shows a lot more range than in her other outings (the majority of which are currently in theaters), she still isn't entirely believable. But then again, how many goth chicks have completely believable emotional expression anyway?

So J falls in love with Randall, whom she calls "R," because she's trying to toss some coolness on him so that he can be her first lover. Randall is not so hot on the lover idea, but he also loves J. He tries to keep his feelings non-sexual, and this frustrates J, but it makes the movie more palatable, if somewhat less commercial. OK, a lot less commercial. I'm pretty sure the audience for My First Mister would have expanded by exactly the number of male moviegoers in America if it had been the standard story about the old guy getting it on with the confused young girl who really benefits from his sexual guidance.

Instead, J benefits from a more mundane kind of guidance in not looking and acting like a total freak, and R benefits in learning to be something of a freak. This, sadly, is some well-traveled territory, and My First Mister gets a little movie-of-the-week with it, especially in the second half, where a slow-acting fatal illness enters the story.

The film could have done without the Lifetime Network disease angle, but it manages to get through it on the good graces of Brooks' acting. In general, though, the film is more interested in Sobieski's character, which is nice in that it balances out the male-centeredness of so much cinema, but it's also a weakness in that Sobieski is not the talent that Brooks is, and her character, though hipper, is also a more two-dimensional.

While hardly perfect, My First Mister is surprisingly good. I think it'd be a great film to take a date to, if you're not planning on scoring afterwards, because scoring would be a crass misuse of this kind of moving cinema magic.

My First Mister
Rated NR
Director: Christine Lahti
Cast: Albert Brooks, Leelee Sobieski, John Goodman, Michael McKean, Carol Kane and Mary Kay Place

More by James DiGiovanna

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