After 26 years, My Girl is still a film wrought with emotional complexity, tears and laughter.
Film is a medium that has the power to define you. Watching a particular movie for the first time can be akin to discovering a piece of music that makes everything click into place. So it was for me with the 1991 drama My Girl. I can’t remember the first time I ever watched the film, but I know how it defined me then and still does to this day. In my house, my family refers to me as a “total Vada” (they say this with love, sometimes). After 26 years, My Girl is still a film wrought with emotional complexity, tears and laughter that burrows into my very soul.
Set during the summer of 1972, My Girl follows morbid 11-year-old Vada Sultenfuss (Anna Chlumsky). Vada spends her days living in a funeral home run by her father (Dan Aykroyd) and playing with her only friend, Thomas J. (Macaulay Culkin).
Girls who grew up in the 1990s remember My Girl with fondness and melancholy. The film isn’t a delightful story of a precocious teenage girl coming into her own, but holds commonalities with the work of Judy Blume in celluloid form. Vada deals with an absentee father and a dead mother, her outsider status due to her father’s profession and her friendship with a boy, and the typical female issues like menstruation. Screenwriter Laurice Elehwany treats everything with respect, sensitivity, and a healthy dose of humor. Vada learns about the birds and the bees, followed by a scene of her loudly telling Thomas J. to come back to her house in “five to seven days!”
Yet for all its trappings of a typical coming-of-age film, My Girl is a sobering look at life and death. It’s said that children learn about death around the age of five, but that the true consequences and awareness of mortality don’t come until adolescence. For me, My Girl was a dark awakening in my knowledge that life is finite. Vada’s severe hypochondria acts as a means of coping with death’s unpredictability – “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” It is these moments of painful realization where Chlumsky’s acting is so transcendent.
Vada’s a girl with a big heart, so determined to save a fish that she’s willing stab herself with a hook. But simultaneously her desire to control life and death is impossible, hence the sad ending that sees Thomas J. taken away from her. Reminiscent of classic books like Bridge to Terabithia, My Girl’s message is a reminder to live life to the fullest; pretty heady stuff for a movie aimed at young adults.
Outside of Chlumsky’s vital performance, she’s complemented by a reliable supporting cast that’s gotten better with time. (Seriously, what other movie can you say includes Macaulay Culkin, Dan Aykroyd AND Jamie Lee Curtis?) My Girl was one of several films Culkin made in the wake of his success with Home Alone and, while he isn’t the lead, it’s impossible to see the film working without him. Gone is the cocky Kevin McAllister and in its place is a shy, vulnerable little boy who loves his best friend and would do anything to make her happy. This is (rightfully so) Chlumsky’s movie, but it’s also Culkin’s as he shows his range as a performer.
As for the adult cast, both Aykroyd and Curtis are fantastic, with the latter portraying a sensitive woman who isn’t written as an overt mother figure for Vada. Curtis plays the role of Shelly, a hair stylist who takes a chance on working with Vada’s father, as a grown-up in her own state of becoming. Her life hasn’t turned out exactly how she wanted, but she’s making due. She and Vada are never situated as a future stepmother/daughter, but tenuous friends and allies just trying to make it in the world.
My Girl shaped who I am. Like Vada, I too am a hypochondriac with a male best friend. And this movie did leave me with a long-standing crush on Griffin Dunne, who plays Vada’s unrequited love, Mr. Bixler. The movie is just as bittersweet and sensitive to me now as it was when I was a child. Without it, who knows what type of person I would be. Either way, I’m happy to have it in my life.