My Girl (1991)

I’ll be the first to tell you that I’m a sucker for movies that I watched as a kid. You can tell me as many times as you want that Matilda and Harriet the Spy are half-assed attempts at cinematic okay-ness, and I’ll still argue with you that they’re some of my favorite movies ever. I’ll also be the first to admit to you that, despite knowing that My Girl is one of the movies that fits into this 1990s kids-classic genre, I’ve never actually seen it until this week. Sure, sure, I knew the basics — romance between children, tragedy strikes when child dies, etc. — but I’d never actually watched the film. However, when it popped up on my Netflix queue this week I thought, “You know what? Let’s give it a shot.” Turns out a shot was all the kid would have needed to survive the damn thing.

Before I get into this review, let me preface it by reiterating this: I understand that it’s nostalgic. I understand that people love it because of its emotional resonance, because it brings you back to your youth, to a simpler time when movies didn’t have to be elite, they just had to be entertaining (and hey, what’s wrong with that, really?).

But let’s talk about it.

For starters, My Girl was one of the first movies of its kind — it focuses on children and their relationships, the fear of death, and ultimately deals with the tragedy of death in the form of a fallen child. And really, its story isn’t bad. 11-year old Vada is the daughter of a mother who died in childbirth and a father who now runs a funeral home — morbid, yes? She’s a bit of a tomboy who runs around with the boys in the neighborhood, especially nerdy, rule-abiding Thomas J. When Vada’s father begins dating the new makeup artist at the funeral home, Vada becomes upset, feeling neglected and choosing to focus her energy on pursuing her own love interest — her English teacher, Mr. Bixler, whose creative writing class she enrolls in at the community college. While Vada deals with her infatuation with Mr. Bixler, she also reveals hypochondriac tendencies and a fear of dying, something obviously related to her mother’s death, as well as her growing up in a funeral home. In the end, Vada must confront death directly as — SPOILER ALERT — her best friend dies from an attack of bees while searching for a possession of hers in the forest. At the film’s end, Vada is still struck by this tragedy, but has channeled her emotions into writing, as well as in developing a better relationship with her father, his new fiancee, and Thomas J’s mother, who continues to mourn her child. Viewers are left with the message that death is inevitable and unpredictable, so we must value our time on Earth and our time with each other, and grow to be compassionate individuals who care about one another.

On paper, it really isn’t bad. Yes, it’s a tragedy and I for one really hate watching kids die, but the core idea of the movie is good, and its core message even more essential.

So here are my 2 main criticisms:

  1. The actors.

My Girl stars three comedic geniuses in roles that do absolutely nothing to complement their greatest talents. Dan Aykroyd plays pudgy, sad, unkempt funeral home director and dad to Vada, Mr. Sultenfuss. Jamie Lee Curtis plays friendly and likeable, but entirely unremarkable Shelley. And Macaulay Culkin, fresh off his success from Home Alone, plays Thomas J., a shy, quiet, sweet boy with very little contribution to the film other than his dying.

Now I understand wanting to do something different. I understand wanting to move beyond one’s typical genre. But to take three completely hilarious individuals and make them this boring? Come on! I don’t know what is more tragic about this casting: my watching it knowing that Akyroyd and Curtis are brilliant comedians who work brilliantly together (hello, Trading Places) but have literally no humor throughout this entire film; OR, knowing that there are thousands, maybe millions, of children around the country (and world!) who don’t even know that Akyrord and Curtis are funny! You think I jest, but one of my friends — who calls My Girl one of her favorite movies — literally did not know that either of them were comedians until I showed her Blues Brothers and A Fish Called Wanda — and that’s a goddamn travesty. At least we know that everyone knows Macaulay is funny, since everyone and their kid brother has seen Home Alone — but really, what a waste of talent across the board. (And yes, despite being excellent comedic actors, Aykroyd and Curtis’s acting in My Girl are incredibly subpar.)

2. The tragedy itself.

Though I do not typically enjoy movies where children die, I understand that these movies have to exist — how else would we learn to process tragedy and the loss of young people? It is through art that we learn to heal.

However, in My Girl, it seemed — what’s a good word for it? — ill-considered. Here’s what happens: Thomas J. and Vada are out playing in the woods one day when they stumble across a bee’s nest. Mind you, prior to this, Thomas J. has mentioned on multiple occasions that he is allergic to “everything.” Everything? “Everything.” So when the two of them start poking at a bee’s nest, you pretty much assume the worst. However, the kids manage to survive the destruction of the nest by running away, and the worst seems to have been avoided. Vada mentions that she dropped her mood ring in the forest, but doesn’t seem terribly upset about it. Fast forward a few minutes: Thomas J. and Vada have decided that they want to explore what kissing is like (cringe, but also, ‘awww.’). The two share an innocent peck and Thomas J. rides off with a goofy grin. Suddenly, Thomas J. has the idea to go back into the woods and look for Vada’s ring (yes, we all know where this is going). Upon returning to the site of the nest, Thomas J. leans over to find the ring, only to realize that the bees have not all vacated the area. He is attacked by a giant swarm, and as we are informed in the next scene by the police officer at Vada’s house, dies — from a combination of his allergies, as well as the sheer volume of bees.

Here’s my issue with this (aside from the normal issues of having children die): Vada does not care enough about that ring to have Thomas J. die for it. There was no point at which Vada expressed that the ring was exceptionally important to her. Maybe if she had said that it was her mother’s ring, or that her father had given it to her, or really attached any emotional connection to it at all, I would have understood it. But she didn’t! Yeah, she liked the ring, but she wasn’t distraught over it disappearing. She acted like any of us would — bummed, but not broken. This upsets me only because I felt like there was no reason for Thomas J. to feel like he had to go get it — no reason, of course, other than the infatuation he feels for Vada after sharing their kiss. And hey, maybe that is reason enough, and maybe I’m just projecting after all because it was tragic and made me sad, too. Even with all of the stomach-sinking foreshadowing, I still hoped that Thomas J. was in the clear, and I still couldn’t help but be sad, which is maybe the most brilliant move by the movie after all: it foreshadows the death time and time again, and most of us know what’s going to happen, but that doesn’t make it any less tragic, and it doesn’t make it any less depressing when Thomas J. finally goes. So as I write this, I realize, perhaps that was the point after all — that tragedy happens even when there is no good reason, and really — is there ever a good enough reason? And can we ever really be prepared?

In the case of My Girl, nostalgia and sentiment go a long way. I can understand why people like the movie — we are creatures drawn to tragedy, after all — but for myself, I could do without it. I understand the lessons it teaches, and I understand the function of its tragedy, but for my child self, I’m glad I never saw it; as my adult self, I’m glad it was free to watch.

But hey, you go on loving My Girl, and I’ll go on loving Air Bud, The Sandlot, and My Dog Skip. Just do yourselves a favor, would you? Go watch Trading Places. Because undoubtably, inarguably, the biggest tragedy of My Girl is not knowing that Jamie Lee Curtis and Dan Akykroyd are far more than Shelley and Mr. Sultenfuss — they’re “Inga from Sweden” and “Winthorpe,” and they are amazing.

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