Strong lead performances and sharply observed psychological details are the hallmarks of "Mr. Vincent," a low-budget indie drama that marks helmer Robert Celestino as a filmmaker worth watching. Although its harshly realistic tone is undercut by an unconvincing ending, pic should generate interest in fest venues and limited theatrical release. Frank John Hughes is well cast and compelling as Johnny Vincent, a high school teacher and would-be singer-songwriter in Yonkers, N.Y. When he's lucky, Johnny is able to perform his music in low-rent bars where few people acknowledge his presence. When he's not so lucky, he has serious trouble holding onto women.

Upon being dumped by his impatient wife, Johnny begins to date Lisa (Lisa LoCicero), a former high school classmate who works as a waitress. Johnny is eager for their friendship to evolve into love and long-term commitment, while Lisa is more comfortable with a more casual and frankly carnal relationship. Even so, she accepts when he offers to lend her money, and encourages his romantic overtures.

The more possessive Johnny becomes, the more uncomfortable Lisa gets. It helps not at all that, when introduced at a party, members of their respective families do not hit it off. Lisa’s slatternly mother thinks Johnny’s family is connected to the mob. This does not stop her however, from enjoying a brief tryst with one of Johnny’s uncles during the party.

Eventually, Johnny grows so jealous and controlling that Lisa is forced to break off their relationship. This cues a terribly rapid change in Johnny, causing him to turn into a bullying, foul-mouthed stalker. He becomes so unstable that, during a typical day of coping with apathetic students, he turns on the class with a viciously insulting tirade, triggering his suspension from teaching duties. And that, unfortunately, gives him all the more time to stew over his breakup with Lisa.

As “Mr. Vincent” charts Johnny’s evolution from generous suitor to vengeful stalker, Hughes’ performance is chillingly persuasive. As Lisa, LoCicero must work with a less well-defined character — occasionally, the pic hints she really is a gold-digger — but she is never less than convincing as she conveys rage and fear.

In a few key scenes, “Mr. Vincent” recalls the raw emotional verisimilitude of works by John Cassavetes. Dick Fisher’s no-frills black-and-white cinematography enhances the credibly edgy mood.

Ultimately, the film chooses to stop short of the tragic conclusion that much of the drama seems to foreshadow. While making an admirable attempt to avoid cliches, however, Celestino strains credibility. The ending appears to indicate that the best way to get romantic obsession out of your system is through an angry act of vandalism. After that, you can go back to being a relatively normal, or least non-threatening, person.

As Woody Allen noted in “Annie Hall” — “If only life were like this!”

Mr. Vincent

Production

An Alchemy Pictures production. Produced by Phil Katzman. Co-producer, Brian Smyj. Directed, edited by Robert Celestino. Screenplay, Celestino, John Mollica.

Crew

Camera (b&w), Dick Fisher; music, Chris Hajian, Steven Louis Infante; art direction, Hefi Bohem; sound, Ian Piggot; assistant director, Tricia Hammann; casting, Sue Crystal. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (American Spectrum), Jan. 25, 1997. (Also at Berlin Film Festival --- European Film Market.) Running time: 90 MIN.

With

Johnny Vincent ... Frank John Hughes Lisa ... Lisa LoCicero Rhonda ... Mimi Scott Micky ... Robert Bruzio Charlotte ... Shoshana Ami Donna ... Dana Chaifetz

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