Monday, February 28, 2011
Revisiting My Girl (And Young Unpro)
This post was originally published on The Film Yap.
When you're 11 years old, all you want is to be understood.
No matter how loved and cherished you are, it's not enough. You want someone to get you. Forget about adults: They have their own lives, which you're starting to realize seem largely mundane and petty. That leaves your peers, but if you're in any way unusual or unique, they tend to ridicule rather than accept.
One friend's all you need.
In one of "My Girl's" opening scenes, preteen Vada Sultenfuss (Chicagoan Anna Chlumsky, more recently seen in "In the Loop" and on TV's "30 Rock") holds court on the steps of her home, which doubles as a funeral parlor. When she offers to show a group of neighborhood boys a dead body, one of them opts out and is called out as a wuss. Before he heads home, the boy and Vada exchange a look. That's all it takes to establish Thomas J. Sennett (Macaulay Culkin at his floppy-haired cutest) as Vada's best — and only — pal.
Vada's not only shunned for her funeral-home family, headed by her distant father Harry (a portly Dan Aykroyd). She likes climbing trees and doesn't wear dresses. Vada's convinced she killed her mother — who died in childbirth — and that she herself is dying as well. Her grandmother, with whom Vada had been very close, is now largely uncommunicative. It's enough to make any kid feel weird. And when free-spirited makeup artist Shelly DeVoto (Jamie Lee Curtis, sporting an enviable collection of mini-dresses) takes a job at the funeral home and falls for Harry, Vada's life gets even weirder.
But she's taking a writing class, taught by her crush, Mr. Bixler (Griffin Dunne). So what if it's for adults and she paid for it by stealing money from Shelly? And there's always Thomas J., who may be allergic to everything but is always up for an adventure. Vada doesn't make it easy for him, once calling him a "pacifist" and "bedwetter" in one breath. But compare her easy meanness to Thomas J. with her behavior around her father, which vacillates between desperate good girl and crying out for attention by declaring she has prostate cancer at the dinner table. Vada can insult Thomas J. because she's comfortable around him. She knows he won't leave her.
Until one day he does.
When "My Girl" was released in 1991, I was 11, the same age as Vada and Thomas J. I had a mad crush on Macaulay Culkin and couldn't believe — gasp! — he was going to die in the movie. I was mildly intrigued as well that the protagonist of the film was not only exactly my age, but a girl. Outside of the Disney Channel, this was practically unheard of. Oh, and there was a kiss. Sold.
I remember seeing the movie with my dad and talking about it afterward. He said to me, "I like that movie. It's about things you can't change, and even though they happen, they are not your fault." First, my dad and I rarely did things one-on-one; there were two other kids in the family. And as I was still reeling from Thomas J.'s untimely fate in the moments after the movie, this simple explanation offered me a whole new outlook.
When I was 16 and a week away from going on my first real date, I rewatched "My Girl" at my cousin's house. What stuck out to me that time wasn't my childhood crush's character's death, but Shelly's quote to Harry: "You can be in a room with a hundred men and not like any of them. But you can be in a room with one man, and he's exactly the one you want." "Wow!" I thought. "That went right over my head when I was 11, but now I totally get it!"
I'm now 30. Just a couple of weeks ago, a fellow critic and I were discussing "My Girl." He remembered Macaulay Culkin's whimper before he met his untimely fate. I remembered how the movie took the young girl's problems seriously and how I could identify with them. I then wondered if "My Girl" would hold up; as we all know, not every childhood pop-culture favorite stands the test of time.
"My Girl" does.
Sure, there are a couple of moments where the kids' interactions seem forced or the score borders on treacly. But as a nostalgia piece, it works well — like 1995's "Now and Then," "My Girl" employs a groovy '70's soundtrack and sun-dappled shots of bike rides to evoke a simpler pre-video game era. And as a believable coming-of-age story, it works even better. Aykroyd journeys from gruff to openhearted, Curtis is fun and flamboyant without resorting to a manic pixie dream girl stereotype. Culkin wasn't always great as a child actor, but here he brings a subtle sweetness to Thomas J. And Chlumsky is excellent — adorable without the pageant-esque shine common to so many young stars today and able to hold her own with her more experienced costars.
I wonder if "My Girl" could be made today. It's neither icky-sweet nor forcibly gritty. It isn't slow, but moves at its own pace, stretching out leisurely like childhood summer. It's a low-key dramedy that wasn't going for millions of box office dollars or scads of critical acclaim. It just is. Watching it as an adult, I recalled that time in my life when, like Vada, all I wanted was to be understood — and as I grew up, I found people who got me.