The 90s On Netflix: My Girl (1992)
Mark Harrison | On 11, May 2018
Director: Howard Zieff
Cast: Anna Chlumsky, Macaulay Culkin, Dan Aykroyd, Jamie Lee Curtis, Griffin Dunne
Watch My Girl online in the UK: Netflix UK / Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Google Play
Do you remember the 1990s? Mark does. On Fridays, he flashes back to the golden decade of our childhood. From family-friendly films to blockbusters we shouldn’t have been watching, get ready for a monthly dose of nostalgia, as we put down our VHS tapes and find out whether the 90s on Netflix are still Live & Kicking.
Warning: This contains spoilers.
Some kids’ films are best remembered for their most upsetting moments. Usually, they don’t overcome the film itself, but in the case of My Girl, a film can become notorious for a certain part of the plot. And despite being a surprisingly mature coming-of-age story with a cracking performance from its young lead, this movie might always be known as “that film where Macaulay Culkin gets killed by bees”.
Anna Chlumsky plays 11-year-old Vada Sultenfuss, who lives in a funeral home run by her dad Harry (Dan Aykroyd.) As a result of the clash between her dad’s home and work life, Vada is a serial hypochondriac who’s convinced that she might die at any moment, whether it’s breast cancer or the chicken bone that she believes is lodged in her throat.
She’s a lonely kid, and Thomas G (Culkin), the kid who’s allergic to everything, is her only real friend. But Vada does a lot of growing up over the summer of 1972, as her dad grows closer to the new make-up assistant, Shelly (Jamie Lee Curtis), and her teacher, Mr. Bixler (Griffin Dunne), starts a creative writing class that she sees as a chance to get closer to the love of her life. The film covers the funny and often painful learning curve she undertakes over the summer.
The usual problem with movies led by child actors is definitely subverted here. Chlumsky is best known nowadays for In The Loop and HBO’s Veep, but her debut in a lead role is really something. It’s easy to imagine a character like Vada being played as precocious, but she brilliantly affects the air of a kid who is actually as smart as she thinks she is, but hasn’t learned all that much yet. She has a great, telling line about getting jealous of Ken and Barbie and making them crash their car, after Harry and Shelly get together, which tells you so much about her character. Overall, Chlumsky really holds her own, even alongside much more experienced actors like Aykroyd and Curtis, who redefine their chemistry from Trading Places here.
Culkin is good too, as the mild-mannered friend who is wiser than he seems – a particular highlight comes when he spares Vada’s feelings when the two of them go fishing. But the film’s current reputation was building even before the film was released. After 1990’s Home Alone, Culkin was the biggest child star in the world, and even before the film came out, there was advance buzz (pun intended, not sorry) that the filmmakers had the temerity to kill him off. In the press, as in the film, it’s a plot twist that overbalances the rest of the story.
I’m not a monster – you can’t fail to be moved by the time it gets to the funeral scene, but again, that’s all on Chlumsky’s performance. The long-tailed set-up for Thomas’ death is such a romping piece of melodramatic irony, with the uncharacteristic dickishness of the two kids teeing up a Chekov’s beehive. It comes with enough time before the end of the movie to process it without it feeling abrupt, but the fateful scene is horribly directed.
Screenwriter Laurice Elehwany turned in a really terrific script, but in spite of getting great performances from his young leads, director Howard Zieff delivers the whole thing straight down the line. Even with such sparky dialogue, the film often feels sluggish and sedate, and it’s easily overpowered by James Newton Howard’s cloying score. The soundtrack of period music from the 1960s and 1970s is better deployed all round, even if the title track plays out over a strangely perfunctory ending.
Altogether, it’s a little more than you expect from a PG movie, although the then-very-uptight BBFC cut a scene in which Vada and Thomas become blood brothers from the UK version, for fear of imitable behaviour. In the main though, My Girl is an emotional rollercoaster that will make you laugh and (yes, eventually) make you cry. All together now: “I’ve got sunshine on a cloudy day…”
My Girl is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.