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First Love

      I've been a major fan of ex-Lemonhead rocker Jesse Peretz's First Love, Last Rites since viewing it as a member of the international critics' jury at the 1998 Rotterdam Film Festival. We awarded it our grand prize, and our citation praised the movie "for its challenge to the dominant American narrative through its unexpected concentration on mood, atmosphere, and sexual mystery."

     Precisely. A brilliant adaptation (screenplay by David Ryan) of a subtle, affecting Ian McKewan short story.

     This is about it for story: in backwater Louisiana, a college-age boy, Joey (Giovanni Ribisi), and girl, Sissel (Natasha Gregson Wagner), sequester themselves in a single-room house on stilts, where they are consumed by lovemaking. A very steamy movie! Sometimes the couple start to talk, the tilt of each conversation dependent on Sissel's ever-shifting moods. The girl's young brother, Adrian (Eli Marienthal) visits, and exhausts them with his monkeying about.

     Occasionally, Joey leaves the room, and hooks up with Sissel's crazy dad, Henry (Robert John Burke), who lives in a motel room, thriving on a diet of overcooked scrambled eggs and a single slice of toast. Henry takes Joey hunting in a pea-soup swamp, and gets him involved financially in an eyebrow-raising business operation, catching eels in traps and selling them at market. "Eels are special, a smart animal," Henry waxes enthusiastic. "In Vietnam, they love eel over there."

     There are no Vietnamese in this Louisiana bayou locale.

     But most of the movie stays in that Women in the Dunes-like room, Joey and Sissel's love shack. It's Joey's first affair, and he's totally hooked, away from the world, far away from his home in Brooklyn. Undeniably, there's something creepy, vampiric, about the way Sissel has sucked him in. She's in control, deciding when, and how, they climb together, and she's certainly a late-teen version of the Mysterious Woman. Sissel asks Joey blunt, probing questions about his childhood, but answers inscrutably about herself and her family.

     Joey: "What does your dad do?" Sissel: "Business." Joey: "What kind?" Sissel: "Different kinds."

     Sissel, describing to Joey her job at a sugar factory: "I make sure that sugar gets into a bag."

     The lead performances are just terrific. Giovanni Rabisi, also on screen in Saving Private Ryan, is a sympathetic nice kid as Joey with a giggly, uncertain laugh, sensing himself over his head in this whirlpool Louisiana environ. Natasha Gregson Wagner as Sissel shifts moods on a dime, from sullen to insolent to sort of loving to madly sexual. She's a pouty post-Lolita, always barefoot and in her undies, keeping Joey in her rein.

     (Wagner is the daughter of actor Robert Wagner and the late actress Natalie Wood, and here she's so much the reincarnation of her Rebel Without a Cause mom: the same fabulous nose and mouth.).

(November, 1999)

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