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Man Meets Goth

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*My First Mister (R)
Paramount Classics

Yes, there is much to disbelieve about My First Mister, the story of a teenaged outsider (Leelee Sobieski) who befriends a shy, middle-aged clothing store manager (Albert Brooks) in her quest for friendship and meaning. But let it ride. The performances of these two lead actors raise what could be merely a quirky coming-of-age tale to the level of a solid tragicomedy. Director Christine Lahti and screenwriter Jill Franklyn misstep slightly by their insistence on a fuzzy ending, but altogether their shared vision of multigenerational friendship and the trials of family hits some high emotional notes, leaving the viewer more than satisfied.

Sobieski is Jennifer, a multi-pierced-Goth-punk stuck with her Betty Crocker mom (Carol Kane) and mannequin stepfather in a pastel suburban ranch house straight out of Edward Scissorhands. When she loses her job at an ultra-hip L.A. leather boutique, Jennifer strikes out for the posh Century City Mall where she spots, and is immediately transfixed by, Randall, a paunchy window dresser played buttoned-up and starched by Brooks. The two recognize an essential loneliness in one another and strike up a friendship that seems unthinkable but gains authenticity as the actors flesh it out. Both are quick with the quips, and while many of their lines are simply funny, often they cut to the core.

Sobieski, who's starring here in her third feature role of the season, establishes herself as an actress with a vivid brain working behind that creamy faade. Her delivery is impeccable, and her coltish innocence here, camouflaged beneath a tough exterior, is utterly disarming. Brooks gives the most tender and humane performance of his career, though he's stuck in far too many wasting-away-in-a-hospital-bed scenes, always difficult to sustain.

Lahti infuses the film with enough irony and fantasy to avoid schmaltz, even when we're talking Love Story meets Harold and Maude with a good dose of Father Knows Best. My First Mister quietly but assuredly makes the point that the best May-December stories should make: It's not about sex; it's about love, acceptance and self-discovery.

-- Kathryn Eastburn

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