My Girl is something of an anomaly as a feature film. It sits right on the border between family film and adult-oriented coming-of-age tale. It’s a PG-rated film that’s entirely about death. It contains the line “flesh all amesh,” which is not the sort of dialogue you hear spoken in The Pagemaster or Gold Diggers: The Secret Of Bear Mountain. It has a fresh, frank attitude toward adolescence, one that evokes nostalgia for simpler times without any obvious pandering to yesteryear. And just as the movie sits somewhat awkwardly on the border between family fare and grownup drama, it explores the uncomfortable moment when childhood gives way to the teen age, when we start to grasp the cruel realities of impending adulthood.
My Girl sets up a rather idyllic adolescent romance for the sole purpose of coldly snatching it away. Thomas J. is a geeky junior dreamboat, an elementary school aged James Dean, the Romeo of the 5th grade. (This is only because he dies tragically young. If he survived, he’d be a virgin until at least college.) The fact that the film was originally titled Born Jaundiced tells us something about how unique it is in the family film space.
Release Date: November 27, 1991
Budget: $17 million
Box Office: $59.5 million
Vada Sultenfuss is a precocious tomboy, wise beyond her years in some ways but also very juvenile. (She knows a lot of different medical conditions most children are unaware of, but not enough about them to realize she can’t possibly have prostate cancer.) She’s had to grow up fast, due to the death of her mother during childbirth and the fact that her father’s a work-from-home undertaker. The film spends plenty of time focusing on the romance between Harry (Dan Akroyd) and Shelly (Jamie Lee Curtis). Shelly emerges as a stealth second protagonist of the film, dropped into this unusual family, hoping to fix what’s broken so she can make herself a part of it. The romance is believable and mature, not the kind of cutesy fluff you expect in a film geared at least partially toward children.
The result? Vada trades her overalls for a dress, her dead, quirky boy best friend for a living but rather basic girl friend, and sunnily declares herself a supporter of one Richard M. Nixon, as the Temptations’ sweet but slightly anachronistic “My Girl” strikes up on the soundtrack. The song was released in 1964, and while the rest of this film is squarely rooted in its 1972 setting, My Girl‘s final moments seem to be reaching for a happy ending that may betray the rest of the movie that came before it. With this ending, My Girl seems to suggest that Vada’s tomboy style and friendship with shy, awkward Thomas J. were part of what was “wrong” with her, and now those “problems” have been solved along with her hypochondriac tendencies and belief that she’s responsible for her mother’s death. And while it’s a fool’s errand to question the political beliefs of an 11-year-old, are we really supposed to believe that this soulful and smart budding poet is a Republican? And that that’s a part of our happy ending?
MY GIRL 2
Release Date: February 11,1994
Box Office: $17.4 million
That brings us to the sequel, a film that has almost nothing in common with its predecessor, to the extent that I’d bet money that someone wrote this script independently of the first film, and it was later repurposed as a My Girl movie. The dead mother’s backstory, which drives Vada’s quest to Los Angeles in the film, makes no sense given what we know about this woman from the first film. Why on earth did a beautiful, promising actress marry a doofus undertaker and settle in suburban Pennsylvania? Vada is also written as a super square in this film, an unlikely development for the quirky troublemaker we met in My Girl.
The arc of My Girl is that Vada comes to terms with her mother’s death and is ready to move on with a new mother figure. My Girl 2 undoes that by having her go on an unnecessary quest to unearth her mother’s backstory. It’s a bizarre choice to continue a story that’s all about a young girl’s life moving forward. Vada gets a minor-key romance with her cousin Nick (Austin O’Brien), but otherwise nothing really happens to her. This is a film about a character who’s already dead, and nothing we learn about this woman is all that fascinating. Nothing that happens in Los Angeles is all that consequential for Vada, since she lives across the country. Why deprive us of a film about what’s really going on with our girl? How much more interesting would it be to see Vada starting to date, dealing with some teen mean girls, exploring her writing, navigating the new addition to her family? The kind of grounded stuff the first film was about?
Jamie Lee Curtis and Dan Akroyd are given nothing to do, and look like they’re pleased to collect a paycheck with minimal effort. The focus on adult shifts to Vada’s ladies’ man uncle, which sounds fun until we learn that his subplot is all about settling down with the owner of a Hungarian auto body shop (a weirdly specific detail with no clear purpose). It’s a total mystery how anyone dreaming up a My Girl sequel would come up with this. The best sequence is a trip to the La Brea Tar Pits, the only section of the film that directly references Thomas J’s death in the first film. It’s the only time when this film’s Vada feels like our Vada Sultenfuss. My Girl 2 isn’t a terrible family film in its own right — it’s clearly aimed at pre-teen girls — but it is a sequel to the first film in name only, with none of the nuance or believability that film brought to the table.
My Girl remains a singular film from the 90s, one of the only kid-oriented films that just about everyone has shed a tear at. It’s not groundbreaking cinema, but it’s the rare film that treats the children and the adults in the audience exactly the same, offering equal pleasures for all.