"My First Mister"
If you want an off-beat love story, one that's more about family-type love than the lustful variety, this could be a picture that's right up your emotional alley. It's the mismatch of the season with a rebellious 17-year old girl hiding her identity behind punk-style piercings somehow hooking up with an elderly (49 years old), somewhat paunchy men's store owner at the mall. Seems distant from reality but its effect gives credibility to the argument for human chemistry.
When overweight, disillusioned, pilfering Jennifer Benson (Leelee Sobieski) decides to take her mother Sylvie's (Carol Kane) advice to find a job, she hits the pavement with all her punk accoutrements in place, refusing to bow to the demands of convention. Potential employers of all kinds have but to look at her for a quick summary of how good an employee she would make. But, they are wrong. Appearance deceives. Writer Jill Franklyn tells us so as this tale unwinds.
But who is somehow intrigued by her is someone somewhat unlikely himself: none other than the owner of a fastidious men's clothing store at the mall. He is round, anally orderly Randall. Despite the obvious alarms her looks and off-putting behavior would inspire in his clientele, something drives him to give her a chance. Should he be called Saint Randall? Is he a disciple of some Indian guru who has taught him to see the inner mysteries of a person? Or, is he just a lonely guy who is responding to a perceived chemical kinship with this poor thing out of a punk rock festival?
Jennifer quickly demonstrates that she can put order into a stockroom with the best of 'em and soon convinces the boss to allow her out on the floor. One mild success leads to another step backward but the overall movement in the relationship is forward as the two find a mutual support that germinates into a kind of love neither has experienced.
While Jennifer plays with the notion that it might be expressed sexually perhaps because she can't think of another outlet for her feelings, Randall kaboshes that approach, quite content to keep it on the platonic level. This helps the film achieve the level of emotion that it does as it allows us to trust the course of development of the theme. It has more to express than sexual love between the generations.
Directorially, the film is full of awkwardness as it makes its way into your heart (if you have one). Christine Lahti who here directs her second feature film doesn't display any particular strength for cinematic story telling other than to let the two fine actors pull it off. A sign of how unmanageable the medium is to her is the completely over-the-top appearance and performance of Jennifer's father Benjamin (John Goodman). Okay, so he's a character; okay, so he's a leftover from the 60's; but his tendency to caricature instead of create character is completely without restraint or a guiding hand. Goodman had his way with Lahti, to the detriment if not to the near destruction of the outcome.
The script repeatedly stretches credulity. But somehow it floats along with your interest intact due, I think, to the acceptance of film reality rather than the organic breathing oxygen kind and to the outright nature of the principal actors -- Sobieski most of all. If this girl has anything, it's sweetness. Yes, she can play crude. Yes, she can mess herself up to look like an unseemly vagrant that sullies her space. But she so sweetly does it, you can only want more -- especially as she slowly matures and grows confident in her own identity.
Everything about this picture is a reach, particularly the ending. But what can I tell you other than to see it if you have a sensitive bone in your body?