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My Girl (1991)

by on 2011/02/25

“I used to like to play with my Ken and Barbie dolls. Ken was my favorite. Then one Christmas I got them a camper and all they wanted to do was hang out in it by themselves. So I wasn’t too upset when they took that wrong turn and went over the cliff.”

* * * *

I was curious about My Girl for a few reasons. First, it kept appearing when I trawled around the web for September ideas (selected “back to school” and “coming of age” crossovers). Then, I kept finding it in discount bins for less than a rental price. Finally, I began to wonder if it might function as a bridge between “geeky” and “romantic”.

Well, I can take a hint . . . eventually. I guess it’s just not my Usual Thing but — as with That’s Entertainment or When Harry Met Sally — I gave it a try, and it surprised me a bit in return.

In part, the movie follows the experiences of Vada (Anna Chlumsky), the eleven year old daughter of small town funeral director, Harry Sultenfuss (Dan Aykroyd). A bookish hypochondriac, she’s obsessed with dying, and only comes alive in the presence of her friend, Thomas J. Sennett (Home Alone’s Macaulay Culkin).

Roughly half the story concerns Vada’s father, a comparative relic, even in a setting of the early Seventies. Distant and humourless following his wife’s death a decade before, he retreats into a limbo scored by old jazz, caring for corpses and his own ailing mother. A recently hired cosmetician (Jamie Lee Curtis) draws him out of his stupor, but will saving him undo the damage his inattention has done to Vada?

The tone is moderately dark. From the cover image, I expected an effort pitched between Anne of Green Gables and The Little Rascals. Instead, I found a difficult struggle with angst . . . and not the angst of John Hughes’ middle class heroes, mind you. These players sublimate their issues of confusing desires, intense guilt, and crippling fear of abandonment.

The portrayals reminded me of Michael Caine’s advice about seeming convincingly drunk: the trick is to try not to act drunk. In My Girl, both father and daughter maintain stable fronts but, when their vulnerability appears, its significance is deep and painful.

Holdover hippies play Ravi Shankar music and interpret auras, but there are no easy answers at hand. In an era of bingo, drive-ins, mood rings, and typewriters, the latest miracle breakthrough is a session with All in the Family. There’s no apparent recognition of Alzheimer’s disease, let alone treatment for desperate depression.

In short, this movie was not quite the “first love” piece I expected. Pushed along by darker undercurrents, it’s somewhat informative, and occasionally enjoyable. Viewers who identify with My Girl’s pre-teen protagonist will find many of their growing pains reflected, if not resolved.

* * * *

Rated PG for adult situations and language

102 minutes

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