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Donnie Darko and My First Mister
Reviewed by Dennis Morton

At least four films in recent months have been portraits of troubled teenagers. First there was the excellent independent film "Ghost World", which, miraculously, made it into the mainstream circuit. Now playing on area screens are "Donnie Darko", "Life As A House", and "My First Mister".

The best of these three is probably "Donnie Darko", although the one I most enjoyed is Christine Lahti's flawed but vibrant "My First Mister". Even the more seriously flawed "Life As A House" is worth a viewing, primarily for the performances of Kevin Kline and Kristin Scott Thomas."Life As A House" is a 'two hankie job' sure to please aficionados of the tear jerker. 

Catch "Donnie Darko" first. It's playing at The Nickelodeon in downtown Santa Cruz and probably won't be around as long as the two studio films. 

"Donnie Darko" is remarkable in many ways. It's written and directed by 26 year old Richard Kelly, who had the integrity to turn down offers for his script from several major studios. They demanded a more mainstream ending and Kelly said "No". Drew Barrymore came to the rescue and apparently brought with her other big name actors, Patrick Swayze, Katherine Ross, and Mary McDonnell.

Kelly describes the eponymous Donnie as a late 80's version of Holden Caulfield as if rendered by Philip K. Dick. "Donnie Darko" is a portrait of psychosis, bravery and sacrifice. The film is imaginative, intelligent, well acted, challenging and thoroughly original. If the narrative thread snags once or twice in the film's beguiling maze, we're never quite sure if it's our fault, or the director's. It's a difficult task to weave mental illness, celestial mechanics and time travel into a seemless celluloid fabric, but Kelly makes a noble effort and mainly succeeds.

As good as this film is, I suspect attentive movie goers have their antennae aimed at the future. If Richard Kelly can make a movie like this at the age of 26, what treasures await us ... what's next?

 In the meantime, we can hope that Christine Lahti will keep making movies. "My First Mister" is her first shot at directing a feature film, and what a piece of work it is. It's a movie that succeeds in spite of the painful eruption of stock circumstance toward the end of the film. Most of the movie is so fresh and genuine that only the jaded will feel cheated. 

"My First Mister" tells the story of an unusual relationship between Jennifer, a multiply-pierced, angst ridden 17 year old, coiffed and accoutred in the style of early millenium Goth, and Randall, the anal proprietor of a haberdashery. Lee Lee Sobieski, an actress I've not seen before, is astonishing as Jennifer. And Albert Brooks is perfect as Randall. Brooks' timing is impeccable and his dead pan visage is 'right on'. Together, these two make believers of us.

 Jennifer and Randall are apparent opposites, but their experiences have shaped them into twisted halves of a whole, and when they meet, each senses the needs of the other. We humans have many ways of camoflaging our pain, but almost as many ways of sensing its existence in others. 

The great joy of watching this movie comes from the mutual discovery of Jennifer and Randall that together they are capable of creating an antidote. 

"My First Mister" runs out of gas before the credits roll, but the trip we've been treated to is so unexpected and so refreshing that most of us, I think, can forgive it its failures.

Richard Kelly and Christine Lahti have each made a fine film. I look forward to their future ventures. But don't wait. Both "Donnie Darko" and "My First Mister" deserve your attention, now.

For The Film Gang, this is Dennis Morton.

Copyright Dennis Morton 2001