In keeping with the touchy-feely tradition of opening night, My First Mister, an offbeat love story starring Leelee Sobieski and Albert Brooks, kicked off the 20th Sundance Film Festival. Introducing her film, actress-turned-director Christine Lahti called it the second-toughest thing she's ever done. "It's between acting and childbirth," she said. "Closer to childbirth."
Lahti's feature-film debut (she won an Oscar in 1995 for the short film Lieberman in Love) won over the audience with its whimsical humor, its sharp one-liners, and its sincere look at the growing pains of an alienated teenage girl. Jennifer (Sobieski), pierced, tattooed, and desperate for work after graduating from high school, gets a job at an upscale men's clothing store despite the doubts of her kind but square middle-aged boss, Randall (Brooks). As they learn more about each other, their relationship grows from antagonism and wariness to love and is ultimately tested by Randall's revelation of a painful past and the specter of a serious illness. It's a potentially dicey scenario, one that skirts both melodrama and creepiness. But Lahti takes the high road and, with solid turns from Sobieski and a wonderfully wry Brooks, crafts a love story in the most meaningful sense of the word.
"I liked the Pygmalion aspect of it: that they both reveal each other and help the other grow," a giddy Lahti said at the post-screening party. "I like that it says you can fuck up and still get a second chance." The typically droll, low-key Brooks, who left the bash considerably earlier than Lahti, pondered his character's fate in the film (which we won't reveal here). "It was weird," he said, "but in a good way."