My First Mister

With an opening sequence full of doom-rock music, dreary imagery and too much eye makeup, you’d never guess “My First Mister” was going to turn into one of the sweetest, kindest movies in recent memory.

The purveyor of all the gloomy stuff is Jennifer (LeeLee Sobieski), a 17-year-old misfit with multiple piercings and a cynical attitude that masks her true, profound sadness. “I’m not really ‘into’ people,” she tells us in the opening narration. She spends her days trudging through school, her afternoons working at a clothing store called Retail Slut (it’s a real place, on Melrose in Los Angeles), and her evenings writing eulogies and hanging out at the local cemetery, communing with the dead.

She also spends as much time as necessary avoiding her well-meaning but loopy mother (Carol Kane — more movies with her in them, please) and her absurdly toupeed stepfather (Michael McKean — ditto), neither of whom has a clue how to handle Jennifer.

After getting fired from Retail Slut, Jennifer — who, for all her rebellion, doesn’t smoke, drink or sleep around — heads to the mall to find new employment. A snooty clothing store called Rutherford’s gives her a job in the stockroom, thanks to manager Randall (Albert Brooks) and his unexplained interest in her.

And thus begins a rather strange friendship. Jennifer and Randall have nothing in common; he’s 49, single and spends his life reading magazines in his house. He convinces her to swear less and stop cutting her own flesh with safety pins, and she gets him to loosen up a little.

I worried for a while that their relationship was going to turn physical. In fact, I expected it — I figured she’s hurry up and turn 18, making it legal (or not; this is a Sundance film after all), and their solid-based friendship would blossom into something more. The fact that neither of them has any real ulterior motives beyond pure companionship and understanding is a far better choice for the film. Randall seems to be concerned for Jennifer out of simple human kindness: He sees someone in need and reaches out. We don’t know why Randall takes Jennifer under his wing, but it’s remarkably sweet and genuine that he does.

To the film’s detriment, it takes a turn late in the game that can best be described as a ploy to weasel tears out of us. (Remember Screenwriting 101: illness = sadness.) To the film’s credit, the ploy works. Though the plot twist is not a good one, director Christine Lahti handles it with grace, and the finale is not nearly as maudlin as it very easily could have been.

That light touch is what makes the film great throughout, too. It’s full of emotion, but it’s honest emotion, and it’s tempered with good humor. Remember that grungy opening sequence; you’ll want to compare it with the finale, which is a complete about-face. Jennifer has finished a poignant personal journey, and we were lucky enough to share it with her.

A- (; R, frequent harsh profanity, very brief sexual.)