My Girl (Howard Zieff, 1991)
Category: Sad coming of age film. Childhood can be quite a nice time. Going to elementary school is kind of a drag, I suppose, but you get to do a lot of coloring and arts and crafts, and there’s generally more homework in high school and college. You don’t have to worry about getting jobs or paying bills or doing anything useful in the summertime. And while elementary school is the time when you start noticing members of the opposite sex and it gets awkward, if you were anything like I was back then you wouldn’t have had to worry about them talking to you. So it works out. There have been plenty of artistic meditations on returning to one’s youth (the movies Big and 13 Going on 30, the Taylor Swift song “Never Grow Up” and the Toys ‘R Us theme song, to name a few awesome ones). I think it would be fun to go back and spend a few days as my younger self, knowing what I know now, especially with regard to “talking to girls” and “winning spelling bees.”
But coming of age is something that we all have to do on our own, more or less. It’s obviously easier for those of us with nice families and money, but it’s a bumpy road for everyone. Some people, like the protagonist of My Girl, have more issues than others, which are depicted in sad movies about people whose mothers died in childbirth and feel guilty about that because they think they killed their mothers and sad movies about allergies. We’ll discuss both of these in greater depth later, but it’s important to note that the first one can be particularly upsetting, and even cause someone so much psychological damage that, as an adult, he leads a mass purge of an entire group of people on a mysterious Island.
My familiarity with this issue: At some point in my life, I came of age. I can’t recall exactly when it happened; in fact, I think it was a pretty gradual process. All I know is that now, it is more socially acceptable to call me a “man” than a “boy.” It’s probably been the case for the past few years. When I was younger, I used to think that this transformation would be much more dramatic and sudden, as if I’d wake up one morning and suddenly be a man. Like a bar mitzvah, but real. I guess it doesn’t really happen like that, at least not in the suburbs. I still think that it happens like this for people who live on farms or some such. Like when Pa throws his back out and can’t go out and chop the wood or milk the cows or whatever, and he says, “Jem, you’re the man of the house now,” and Jem, probably like fourteen years old, stands there looking solemn and in that moment understands all of his manly responsibilities. Boom. Man. The coming of age process did not happen that way for me. In many ways, it’s still going on. (I have never milked a cow.)
On the allergy front, while all the other bugs (diabetes, asthma, weak facial hair growth) were feasting on my pale, sickly flesh, the allergy bug instead attacked brother of the blog Tony Krizel. He is allergic to nuts and poppy seeds. My mother often informs waiters of this fact. Tony is 26 years old. The coming of age process continues.
(Let’s also note the top three billed actors in this movie: Dan Aykroyd, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Macaulay Culkin. Wow! It’s gonna be a laugh riot! Ghostbusters meets A Fish Called Wanda meets Home Alone. I’m seeing boffo box office! Boffo, I say!)
Plot summary yoinked from IMDb: “Vada Sultenfuss is obsessed with death. Her mother is dead, and her father runs a funeral parlor. She is also in love with her English teacher, and joins a poetry class over the summer just to impress him. Thomas J., her best friend, is 'allergic to everything,' and sticks with Vada despite her hangups. When Vada's father hires Shelly, a makeup expert, in his funeral parlor, and begins to fall in love with her, Vada is outraged and does everything in her power to split them up.”
What I thought of the movie: I think I liked it in spite of itself. There really were very few things in the movie that were original. Which didn’t make it bad, per se, just less interesting than it could have been. And there were a few things about the story that kind of bothered me. A lot of stuff that could have easily been sorted out with any kind of father-daughter communication, but had to be saved until the end of the movie for the maximum catharsis. Curtis plays a Manic Pixie Dream Girl: Groovy 70s Edition, and gets together with mortician Aykroyd because… well the story says they have to. There’s really no other reason why she would fall in love with him, as not only does he look like a big lumpy blob of Aykroyd, but he just mopes around throughout pretty much the entire movie. And he’s not even a good father. But I guess standards were lower in the 70s.
And yeah speaking of the 70s, the movie really hits you over the head with all the references. (Although the song “My Girl” is only played once, at the end. Which was lame, because that’s the best song ever. I expected that to be playing every five minutes like in That Thing You Do!) There’s even a kid wearing a Nixon/Agnew button. (If I was around back then, I’d have smacked that kid right in the face.) The movie is chock full of your stereotypical growing up stuff: they go fishing, she sings to a picture of the teacher she has a crush on, some mean girls sing the K-I-S-S-I-N-G song, etc. Like I said, nothing heckas original. This all sounds like I hated it, when it’s more like I recognized it, and acknowledged it was kinda lame, and still managed to be somewhat moved by it at the end. And there were some things that were really nice. The performance by Anna Chlumsky (who has the best last name since “Rusesabagina,” and grew up to be the PWIP PIP girl in In The Loop) is very sweet and believable. And the scene where she and Macaulay Culkin have their first kiss, and then recite the Pledge of Allegiance to detract from the awkwardness, is great. I’m going to try that on some girl one day.
(SPOILERS from now on, I guess; I mean this is stuff I knew was going to happen, and it’s the only real reason why this is considered a sad movie.) The sad stuff is decently effective, if pretty unoriginal, too. This seems to be a theme in sad movies about kids who die: the moment after they experience the bliss of young love, they’re goners. It happened to the murdered girl after that dreamboat professed his love to her in a completely unrealistic fashion in The Lovely Bones, and it happened to poor Macaulay Culkin after his aforementioned very sweet first kiss in this one. I guess the filmmakers want to dampen the effect of killing off a child, and so they let the kid experience true happiness first. A sort of, better to have loved and then gotten killed off than never to have loved at all, type deal. In any case, it worked better in this one, even though I saw it coming. I still felt sad for everyone involved.
How I, John Krizel, related to the movie: The filmmakers really chose to play up the nostalgia of youth thing. It’s aimed towards a pretty wide demographic, and thus can’t get too specific. That’s why all the period choices and familiar songs make it feel kind of anodyne. But that’s also how movies sell lots and lots of tickets. I, of course, did not grow up during the 70s, and thus the movie isn’t exactly aimed at me. But there are general childhood things here that I could relate to. What I could not relate to, however, was the whole single parent thing, and also the whole not strict, let your kids play out all day and night thing. My mother watched me like a hawk every second I was out of the house. When I was eight, I crossed the street in front of our house on my bike without looking both ways first, and a car almost hit me. I don’t remember it being that close, but of course that’s not the point. I was confined to the sidewalk for much of the next several years. When I was sixteen and wanted to go take the test to get my learner’s permit, she suggested that we wait a little while, because I still might not have learned my lesson from EIGHT YEARS EARLIER. And so when Dan Aykroyd doesn’t chase after the girl when she runs away from the funeral, I was bewildered.
The main thing that really hit home in this movie was the fear of bees. I had never seen this movie before (it came out when I was five), and so I know that my fear has its genesis elsewhere. (It may have been a movie about killer bees that I remember being on at my cousin’s house once. The Swarm, I think it was. I just looked it up. Michael Caine was in it!) The point is that I have been terrified of bees for as long as I can remember. I was stung once when I was a kid, and I had what at the time I considered to be an allergic reaction, but was probably just me being hysterical for a while. (Like how I used to tell my mom I was allergic to apple juice, when in fact I just didn’t like the way it tasted. I did not know what the word "allergic" meant for an embarrassingly long time.) So in this movie Macaulay Culkin, whose Chekhovian gun was placed on stage in act one with the phrase “he’s allergic to EVERYTHING,” shot himself in the face with it in act three when he OPENLY ANTAGONIZES a swarm of bees FOR THE SECOND TIME. Whyyyyyyyy would you do that. How is that fun! I submit to you that the sound of a bee buzzing past your ear is the most frightening sound that exists. AND THAT’S JUST THE SOUND. What’s even worse is a bunch of bees stinging you to death with their stingy stingers. TO DEATH. Imagine!
How I felt after the movie ended: I guess I had a lot of negative stuff to say about My Girl, but in the end I don’t think I disliked it. In fact, I’d probably recommend it to people. It got me thinking about all kinds of things, not just related to bees or The Temptations. As clichéd as the relationships in the movie were, it did make me think about what it would be like to be a single father, and the difficulties of raising a spirited, precocious 11-year-old girl alone. (It would probably help if some braless biddy showed up at my door in a camper and just decided to fall in love with me for no reason. But I digress.)
ALSO, there is a sequel to this movie that I obviously have not seen and don’t really know anything about. (I think friend of the blog Allie Hagan mentioned that My Girl 2 is actually much more of a coming-of-age film, which makes sense, as the girl pretty much remains the same age throughout this one.) Should I seek this out? Is it as sad? Are there as many bees? I’m relying on you, people.