After a number of years chronicling 90s kids movies for Year of the Month, we reach a bit of a resting point. The sea change caused by Home Alone in late 1990 hadn’t yet built into the tidal wave of movies asserting kid supremacy. Sure, we could goof on Suburban Commando and have some laughs at the Hulkster’s expense, or relitigate Hook for the umpteenth time. But frankly in 1991 only one film carrying a PG rating was widely known to America’s movie-going children. And if your parents didn’t take you, you’d still know its biggest twist.
In My Girl, Macaulay Culkin, who had exactly one year ago achieved screen immortality, plays the boy character. And that boy character dies.
He dies from bee stings.
I suppose that qualifies as a spoiler now, but this was common knowledge in 1991 because no kid lucky enough to get taken to the new Macaulay movie opening weekend could keep a lid on the scoop of the century. A typical early 90s playground conversation between third graders, lightly edited for clarity, would begin “Hello, my friend, I should love to join you in a game of four square and Macaulay Culkin dies from bee stings in My Girl.”
A bunch of bees accomplished what The Wet Bandits never could: they murdered Macaulay Culkin at the height of his powers. John Larroquette shot Richie Rich point blank multiple times and he walked away, yet this demi-god was felled by assassins living in the begonias just outside our own windows. This was a scary concept for a kid, that Macaulay Culkin could one moment share a laugh with His Girl on the poster and the next die from bee stings. Generations before had JFK, generations to come would have 9/11, we lost our innocence to My Girl.
Confession: I had never seen My Girl before signing up to write about this movie. In my mind, My Girl was two minutes long. The two best friends from the poster share the greatest, most unguarded laugh ever and then one of them is immediately killed by bees. (Though I also gathered, from watching my parents go through their own crisis of aging, that Dan Ackroyd did something very different from his Bass-O-Matic persona.) And as it turns out, my gaze-into-the-abyss childhood reaction was entirely appropriate to the film.
The movie starts with 11-year-old Vada Sultenfuss (Anna Chlumsky) addressing the camera in her kitchen. She talks about being born jaundiced and living with a chicken bone lodged in her throat for three years. She turns from the camera to inform her father Harry (Ackroyd) that she’s dying of cancer. He blithely asks her to pass him the mayonnaise. Vada is a hypochondriac obsessed with death and Harry is a borderline-negligent parent who rolls with it. Both conditions likely stem from Harry’s occupation as a work-from-home mortician.
It’s 1972 and the town of Madison, Pennsylvania still can’t get “Do Wah Diddy Diddy” out of their heads eight years after its release. The whole milieu is a little confused, actually. There’s reference to early 70s signposts like The Brady Bunch and mood rings, but It’s mentioned that Harry’s brother Phil has a metal plate in his head from a Korean War injury, and most of the songs, including “My Girl” itself, are from the mid-60s. Granted, these songs would be familiar even to a kid in the early-90s listening to Oldies radio, but the song choices, remnants of hippie culture, and skipping backwards to a military conflict 20 years older points to a hole in this movie that we’ll address later.
Because the time period is mostly to provide window dressing for an episodic coming-of-age story and a more likely era when one could store and embalm cadavers in a residential basement. The movie was originally titled Born Jaundiced and considered several alternate titles (my favorite: Mourning Glory) before producer Brian Grazer slapped it with My Girl. This new title had the twin benefits of being nostalgia-bait for Boomers (ala Stand by Me) and positioning the film as though Vada’s friend Thomas J., played by newly-minted megastar Culkin, had the more central role. The movie’s trailer is narrated by Culkin, a bait-and-switch tactic to hide that the real movie will be narrated by Vada in macabre non-sequiturs that wouldn’t sound out of place in Badlands. Also Culkin never hints in the trailer that he will finish the film as a waxy corpse, bee stings still visible across his placid face. But I’m getting ahead of myself again.
There’s many other corpses to see first! One of the movie’s odd charms is its comfort with dead bodies. Vada is made to stay around the corner when dad prepares the body of his old high school shop teacher, though we’re allowed in on the process. The idea of people as future bodies is a contagious one. After joining the practice as a makeup artist and eventually Harry’s love interest, Shelly (a stupendous Jamie Lee Curtis) gets a sinking feeling at Bingo night that she’ll be making up many of the elderly townspeople around her. “Why do you think these seats were open?” asks Harry.
This is a good deadpan, so to speak, line by Ackroyd though he’s generally a sandbag on this film. The dialog around him informs us that he’s a “grump” still mourning the loss of his wife and not particularly open with the others in his life. Ackroyd renders this as lethargy or maybe a fear of speaking too loudly. Maybe he’s trying to blend it with his work, or maybe Ackroyd doesn’t have a lot of modes between Ghostbusters and “late night table read” (he was coming off a supporting actor nomination for a toned-down role Driving Miss Daisy which I did see as a child and not since). It unfortunately makes for an awkward romantic subplot when Curtis’s gregarious performance has to stoop to seeing something worthwhile in her blank boss.
Vada, meanwhile, makes regular trips to her doctor complaining of any symptom associated with the latest death she’s heard about, including a failing prostate. She doesn’t get along well with the other kids in town and prefers the company of fellow outcast Thomas J., described as “allergic to everything” (like… bees?) Playing into their outcast status, the kids start the movie in pre-gendered roles. Thomas J. is mocked as a kid who “plays with dolls” and Vada has a vague tomboyish streak to her. Part of Vada’s journey is becoming the Girl of the title. She gets introduced to makeup and learns about menstruation and sex from Shelly and she secretly harbors a crush on her writing teach (Griffin Dunne). But the movie mostly concerns her relationship to the three boys her orbit, Thomas J., her father, and the Grim Reaper (not portrayed on screen).
The Thomas J. relationship can be guessed from the Culkin-heavy previews (except its ending…) They trade childish barbs and eventually a first peck of a kiss. They have the temperament of Peanuts characters, if not quite the verve. The two actors – actually 11-years-old and refreshingly polish-free – have an easy charm in these sections. Culkin hasn’t yet had the smarmy Kevin McCallister grimace grafted onto him and Chlumsky is a natural on camera. Pleasant shenanigans play over the Summer of ’72 as they get into a bit of trouble causing a riot at the Bingo hall and later bothering a nest of bees. All’s well and innocent. They jump in a lake and get away from the bees. Surely the bees will forget…
Vada’s relationship with her father is less straightforward. She resents his dating Shelly and later their engagement. Danny is kind enough, but he’s often putting her off, brushing off her questions about his work. Vada’s questions about death aren’t all the childhood inquisitiveness Harry takes it for. Privately she fears she’s responsible for her mother’s death in childbirth, which she confesses to us in voiceover but holds back from speaking aloud. Harry doesn’t exactly give openings for the question as he attempts a difficult work-life separation while carrying coffins through the home (“They come in all sizes, like shoes,” is his explanation for a small one that concerns Vada.)
Then, Thomas J. – you should sit down for this – Thomas J. returns to the scene of the destroyed bees nest looking for Vada’s lost mood ring. The bees are waiting. They’ve been waiting for his return the whole day, which is twenty years in bee time. While Thomas J. retrieves the ring out of the dirt, one slowly unsheathes a hunting knife. Two more bees quietly barricade the forest’s exits. By the time Thomas J. realizes something’s amiss, they’ve got him lashed to a chair in front of a slide projector. “Do you see?” one buzzes as he looks at images of their crushed honeycombs. To the shock of the children in the first screenings of the movie and no child after that, Thomas J. buys the farm.
The scene where Harry breaks the news to Vada is heartbreaking. No doubt kids watch this scene with an eye on Vada’s process of coming to grips with the news; I felt heartbroken imaging the task Harry has of telling her. The heartbreak continues as Vada unsuccessfully attempts to emulate Harry and avoid the situation afterward. Apparently the only undertaking game in town, Thomas J.’s funeral (and, by implication, his embalmment) takes place in her own home where Vada finally has a melt down at his memorial service over this first dead body she’s been allowed to view.
This leads to a scene between Vada and her father where he apologizes for his distance and they connect over her lost mother. The shock of Thomas J.’s death allows the movie to get away with this in the moment, though viewed with some distance, the sentiments are good and meaningful without a whole lot of support from the middle of the movie. To this point Harry has seemed awkward more than actively distant. Dealing with the mother’s backstory death makes for a conclusion that’s easier than it is satisfying.
Alternatively, there’s something significant about an American family in 1972 (with a war veteran under its roof, no less) that is both obsessed with death and studiously trying to ignore it that the movie never really faces. The Vietnam War would have been headline news throughout this summer but no mention is made about what effect daily images of war might have had on Vada’s doom and gloom imagination. The televisions show All in the Family and a western, but no news broadcasts. This would have been a few years before I learned history from a textbook with no mention of the Vietnam War and that declared the Korean War a tie.
There’s little hints of paths not taken, or maybe paths rerouted on the journey from Born Jaundiced to My Girl. Immediately after their experimental smooch Vada and Thomas J. panic about the awkward silence, finally filling it with the only thing that comes to mind – the Pledge of Allegiance. It’s a funny moment on its own terms – two kids standing ramrod straight with hands over their hearts and belting the Pledge to avoid embarrassment. And, in an alternate vision of 1972, it’s interesting to see kids jump to rote patriotism when uncomfortable.
The movie ends on a curious final voiceover line where Vada declares herself “much better now” then shouts out the re-nomination of Richard Nixon. It reads as an ironic joke – a kid happily parroting a conservative adult’s opinion of a later-disgraced figure – but considering the heretofore apolitical movie about a family with an odd pain-and-profit relationship with death, it’s strange to head to the credits (and the titular song) on the word “Nixon” with no particular point of view attached. Of all the movies to end with a venom-free stinger.
In the 90s, most kids movies sold immortality. Not just against bees, but immortality for their childhood selves. No kid walked out of these movies thinking they’d someday be the disconnected dad who needed to be taught a lesson. My Girl has more mature thoughts on its mind, the inevitability of growing up and the inevitability of death. It prods at things that are hard to process, and it comments – explicitly and on a deeper, implicit level – on the way those difficult subjects can get left undiscussed. My childhood impression wasn’t wrong – My Girl does show some sad, scary stuff, even if it flinches from some of it.