Screened at Sundance (Opening night premiere). Dir: Christine Lahti. US. 2001. 109mins.

My First Mister, actress Christine Lahti's feature directorial debut, is a decent, mildly-engaging melodrama about the unlikely bond that develops between a rebellious high-school graduate and a sensitive, dying older man. Strong acting by both the up-and-coming Leelee Sobieski and veteran Albert Brooks, and some comic and emotional touches, make this sappy film more enjoyable than it has a right to be. In the US, Paramount Classics should generate modest returns for a film that's more likely to be watched by older and nostalgic viewers, willing to walk down memory lane, than by viewers of the heroine's age.

As an actress, Lahti is associated with offbeat and edgy films, such as Swing Shift (for which she received a supporting Oscar nomination), Housekeeping and Running On Empty. But as a director, she, like Sally Field and Diane Keaton before her, strives disappointingly for an earnest and schmaltzy narrative that contains a heavy dosage of "human" messages and learning lessons.

At 17, Jennifer (Sobieski) is a misfit par excellence, the black sheep of her family, totally misunderstood by her chirpy, musical-obsessed mother (Carol Kane). With multiple piercings, all-black wardrobe and frequent visits to the cemetery, her favourite site for personal meditation and cleansing, she keeps the entire world at a distance. Except for Jennifer, everyone knows that the punk look is a disguise to protect the lonely girl she is inside, that the cynicism is only skin-deep, a shield for genuine fears of facing maturity and responsibility.

Things change when Jennifer meets Randall (Brooks), her complete contrast: a precise, well-ordered man, three times her age, who runs a men's clothing store in an upscale shopping mall. Living alone, Randall keeps everything under control; his only joy derives from ritually reading a gossipy magazine after dinner. Hard to believe, but Jennifer shows interest in working for Randall and, after a series of rejections and arguments, he consents.

Only a shade above the middlebrow, therapeutic sensibility of a TV movie, the film's narrative soon forgets about the real outside world and instead concentrates on the evolving affection between these polar opposites. It doesn't take long for Jennifer and Randall to realise that both have been long-term prisoners of their thick emotional armour. My First Mister is a "reach out and touch" kind of film based on the schematic notion that, given the right circumstances, any two wildly dissimilar individuals can establish a meaningful connection on the foundation of mutual trust.

Fearing the consequences of its own exploration, the script by Jill Franklyn touches briefly - but then drops completely - the notion that the virginal Jennifer is physically attracted to Randall. Rushing to provide a pat, crowd-pleasing resolution, the movie introduces Randy (Desmond Harrington), Randall's long-absent son, and Patty (Mary Kay Place), an older woman who takes care of Randall while he's hospitalised for a fatal disease. By the end, the movie sinks to the level of a routine episode of the Oprah show, in an all too-symmetrical dinner sequence in which every character, including Jennifer's hippie and estranged biological father (John Goodman), finds their soulmate to the swing of music and dance.

Prod cos: Total Film Group, in association with Film Roman. US dist: Paramount Classics. Int'l sales: Total Film Group. Exec prod: Gerald Green. Prods: Carol Baum, Jane Goldenring. Scr: Jill Franklin. Cinematographer: Jeffrey Jur. Prod des: Dan Bishop. Ed: Wendy Greene Bricmont. Music: Steve Porcaro. Main cast: Leelee Sobieski, Albert Brooks, Desmond Harrington, Carol Kane, Mary Kay Place.