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My First Mister
(2001)

Director: Christine Lahti   
Cast:
Albert Brooks, Leelee Sobieski, Desmond Harrington


For the past twenty years or so, there has been a lot of fuss from some individuals about the state of film distribution, namely how it has supposedly changed for the worse. They point out how multiplexes don't "Let's see... there's still some space up there that's not pierced..."seem very interested in independent movies and/or movies that are more cerebral in nature, and instead put their focus on exhibiting big-budget heavily-promoted cinematic candy that will generate big returns on their opening weekends. I'm not saying that this argument doesn't have any truth to it, but at the same time I feel there are other things that have to be taken into consideration. Let me tell you a true story about my city, a city large enough in population and area to have a major university and several colleges. Several years ago, one of the multiplexes in the city was sold to a new company, a company that planned to exhibit movies more off the beaten path. They booked art films, foreign films, and even Canadian films. If on the few occasions they showed a big-budget major studio film, it would be more of an "artistic" nature (e.g. Castaway). This went on for several months before trouble started to show. First, they stopped booking Canadian films, even the ones that were made by this same Canadian company. No real surprise there - I had seen that when these movies past their first week at the theater, they were only exhibited on weekend matinees on their second week before disappearing completely. But in the following weeks, things continued to change. They started to exhibit more than one big-budget major studio film at a time. Soon the big-budget major studio films they started exhibiting became less artistic. Then they began to exhibit even more of them at a time. Now whenever I pass that multiplex, they are almost always exhibiting in each theater the same cinematic candy that's shown in the other multiplexes in the city.

In case you weren't able to figure it out, what I'm trying to illustrate with this story is that it must also be considered that audience's tastes have simply changed over the past few decades, that they are in general no longer in the mood for movies of a more thoughtful nature. Just why the audience's taste has changed could be argued and theorized for hours - some possibilities include more thoughtful fare migrating to various cable TV companies, the attention span of audiences diminishing, or their intelligence being what's diminishing. None of which applies to me - I always thought it was a crummy multiplex, and I try my hardest not to support the Alliance/Atlantis company. Plus, while there may be nothing automatically wrong with foreign, independent, or even Canadian films, they simply didn't show the kind that also happen to be real movies. Real movies, as you may know, have long been my focus here at The Unknown Movies. But every so often, I elect to review something different, something that may not be so real, at least at first glance. I do this for several reasons. The first is to ensure some variety on my site, to help ensure I reach as wide an audience as possible. The second reason is so I can better appreciate real movies - no matter how much you love something, the taste can diminish if you indulge in it non-stop, even if it happens to be extremely sweet to the taste.

But what not so real movie to review? Choosing is always an unenviable task for me. I decided to rely on my mother, who in the past had been successful in finding great real movies (like Boondock Saints) for me to look at - maybe she would know of something not so real that would be relatively painless to sit through. He finally learned a way to get a feel without getting slapped in returnAs it turned out, around this same time she told me of such a movie she had just seen and enjoyed, My First Mister. The movie was handled by a major Hollywood distributor, yet the number of theaters it was released to during its theatrical release was quite small. Looking at the movie, it's pretty easy to figure out why the distributor did very little with the movie. No, it's not that the movie is bad, but it's for what I suggested earlier in the review - that the movie is a more thoughtful exercise, dealing with issues that are more serious, and not in a glossy manner. Not what the mass audience thinks it wants to see on a Friday night. See if you agree: At the opening of the movie, we are first introduced to Jennifer (Sobieski, Joy Ride), an anguished 17 year-old girl. She has no friends, is unable to connect with her perky mother or stepfather, and whose sole interest in life is writing and rewriting her eulogy. Having no other post-graduate plans, she seeks a job, but no one seems willing to give this suicidal multiple-pierced girl a chance. Yet one day, she finds salvation from the most unlikely of people - the conservative and reserved Randall (Brooks, Finding Nemo), a 49 year-old clothing store owner. He not only gives her a job, but surprisingly is more that willing to accept Jennifer's sometimes barbed temperament. And while Randall at times seems positively irritating to Jennifer, she finds to her surprise that at the end of the day he can accept him for his warts and all. It's definitely not a smooth relationship - there is a lot of disagreement and arguing - but the two find something growing between the two of them despite all the turmoil.

No, it's unlikely that a mass audience could ever be convinced to go see a movie with this kind of plot description, unless maybe if it was directed as a wacky comedy of some kind. That's not to say that there aren't any laughs to be found in My First Mister, but the laughs are not only more sporadic, they come out of a more realistic depiction of things. The movie is more of a look between two completely different (but realistic) characters, and how they are able to find a common (and believable) ground to be on. This may sound dry and uninteresting, but the movie manages to present these things in a way that interests us. Take the characters, for instance. You can't help but feel empathy for Jennifer. She clearly hates herself, feeling that she's worthless and that there's no point in her trying to succeed in anything. Yes, she is sometimes cruel to people around her, but on closer examination we see that she is really hurting herself when she commits these bad acts - alienating herself further from these same people who might be able to give her some comfort and feeling of self-worth. We keep watching her, because we want to see her learn to feel good about herself. In some ways, Randall is like her. He is soon revealed to be a man who has isolated himself, feeling that he isn't able to offer what is needed on his part for any kind of relationship. We keep watching him, because we want to see him break out of his solitary existence and to really live instead of just exist.

But the real attraction to this movie is seeing how these two mismatched people interact with each other, and how they are able to develop a close friendship despite all their differences. Their first meeting is rough and disrespectful, and there are moments later that are almost as bad, but they are still "You mean my part is only this big?!?"drawn to each other. You start to see that they are perhaps tiring of their lives - Jennifer tiring of hating all the time, Randall tiring of keeping distant from everyone. They have something of an unspoken agreement between them, to experiment until they can figure out what's best not only for themselves, but for the other. As they are figuring things out, you find yourself getting deeply involved in whether this relationship is going to succeed. When one of them does or says something that provokes a crisis, it's something you can identify with to some degree, enough so to remind you of a mistake made in a relationship of your own. You get that sinking feeling in your stomach, and greatly hope that things will be able to be patched up, and in short notice. Much more comforting are the scenes where nothing troubling is going on, and the two characters are able to relax or have fun with the other. These are the best scenes in the movie, having that feeling of  joyful casualness that comes out when you are with a good friend and you let your defenses come completely down. Whether it's a staring contest, or trying out one of the hobbies of the other, it's never boring. You get caught up in the breezy spirit, and relate it to you own fond memories with friends.

You might be wondering if the relationship travels from friendship to romance. In another movie, it might - after all, most films, whatever the genre, have some kind of romantic angle to them to help widen their appeal to the general audience. Well, the answer is no... and yes. Eventually, Jennifer starts to see Randall as a suitable romantic partner. This may sound like yet another flashy Hollywood May-December cinematic romance, but the movie instead treats it in a more realistic fashion. The love Jennifer feels for Randall comes more from her pained life instead of pure romantic interest or even lust. Before it happens, we have learned that Jennifer still has a few years to mature, has previously been isolated from people for years, and certainly never has been in love before. She may think that her feelings are genuine, but to us outside viewers, it's clear that she still has a lot of learning to experience about interpersonal relationships. Randall, on the other hand, thinks differently about the relationship. Wisely, he's not made to break down and let himself fall in love with Jennifer, as it might happen in another movie. He's had experience, knows what's right and what isn't, especially for his needs. It's no surprise that he rejects Jennifer's advances, because he's not the kind of guy that would do that. One disappointing part is that he subsequently tells Jennifer that they are going to have a serious talk about this matter, but he never gets around to doing so; such a scene would have given us more detail into the workings of Randall's mind.

This isn't the only time that My First Mister promises to do something, but ultimately retreats from doing so. It happens enough times that the movie starts to feel unfinished. Take the character of Jennifer's biological father, played by John Goodman. In the first part of the movie he has a scene with Jennifer that illustrates When her hand kept slipping off, Brooks helped her to get it to stay in placethat things are strained between the two of them. It's a short scene, but one that plays out with the feeling that there are going to be some major developments between the two of them later in the movie. But instead, Goodman's character only appears one other time, in the last few minutes in a scene that wouldn't have played out with any real difference if his character wasn't there. While I'm speaking about her father, I might as well mention how disappointed I felt with the portrayal of her mother. Jennifer's mother is depicted as an extreme stereotype, a chirpy unfazed goody-goody straight out of a '50s sitcom; it's not only unfunny, it robs the movie of the chance to add some extra drama. Though the biggest problem I had with the movie was how determined it seemed to be flashy. Every so often, the sedate and involving atmosphere is punctured by loud music, or flashy editing techniques like slow motion or dissolves. Not only is it out of place, it makes you wonder if director Lahti wasn't confident that the centerpiece of the movie - the mismatched relationship - couldn't hold interest by itself. She was wrong. But I'll excuse her for that, not just because the strengths of the movie still outweigh the weaknesses. Seeing how it's her first time behind the camera, like one's first mister, it's inevitable to make some mistakes the first time out.

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See also: Breezy, The In-Laws, Your Three Minutes Are Up

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