There was always something that irked me about My Girl. Even as a 10-year-old, I found the 1991 film’s 11-year-old protagonist, Vada Sultenfuss, a bit too much—too precocious, too dramatic, too confident. She’s a tomboy (played by an emotive Anna Chlumsky in her first leading role) who lives in a funeral home with her widowed father, Harry (a schlubby Dan Aykroyd), and her demented grandmother. Vada suffers from an intense hypochondria and an even more intense need for attention. No sooner does a body come in than Vada suddenly begins exhibiting symptoms of its cause of death, biking off for a check-up from her rather accommodating family physician, who seems to have nothing better to do than humor her. “There’s absolutely nothing wrong with you,” he says, at the film’s start. Not true, I thought.
Vada is one of those irritatingly wise-beyond-their-years characters so common to the coming-of-age movie, bragging to her teacher (and schoolgirl crush) Mr. Bixler that she’s read all the books on his summer list, despite it only being the beginning of the season, and is now reading War And Peace for fun. She uses 50-cent words like “hemorrhaging” instead of “bleeding” when she gets her period, and when referring to her best friend, Thomas J. (Macaulay Culkin), she says that she only likes to surround herself with people who she finds “intellectually stimulating.” These most common of things—classic novels, periods, best friends—all become part of Vada’s curated, darling uniqueness.
Vada’s even-keeled dad ignores her antics for the most part, too busy with embalming corpses, watching All In The Family, and mooning over his funeral home’s new makeup artist to worry whether she’s getting the attention she needs. Yet with an entire town’s worth of doting adults, Vada gets more than enough attention elsewhere: not only from the aforementioned English teacher, her doctor, and his nurse, but also from a writing workshop full of vibe-feeling hippies, as well as myriad other sympathetic listeners. (As a veteran of way too many writing workshops, I’ll say that it would have annoyed the shit out of me to have to indulge some smart-assed 11-year-old in one.) Even while watching the movie as a kid myself, I didn’t understand these other characters’ seeming adoration of a girl who, to me, needlessly demanded so much of their time.
None of this, however, kept me from watching My Girl dozens of times over the course of my childhood. Nearly the same age as the film’s protagonist when the movie premiered, I had a few things in common with Vada—namely that I was an overachieving kid with a sometimes sad adolescence. However, unlike the offscreen death and absence of Vada’s mother, my parents’ divorce wasn’t something that I openly mourned but rather quietly endured. (I realize these aren’t the same thing.) But Vada’s idiosyncratic antics—feigning illness, reading books that most adults skip, forcing herself into an adult community workshop—was the kind of attention-seeking I didn’t feel comfortable doing myself. I read a lot, was a straight-A student, and wrote kind-of shitty (okay, very shitty) poetry, all rather unobtrusively. Rewatching My Girl today, I now realize what grated me so much about Vada’s behavior: It was what I wanted to do but couldn’t, too afraid to make myself be heard among my two sisters, as well as any number of my parents’ louder concerns.
While as a kid I vaguely recognized Vada’s frequent doctors’ visits as an immediate reaction to the death she witnesses coming through her door every day, I see now that her conduct is more deeply connected with her mother, who died giving birth to Vada and who surfaces solely through wistful remembrances and blurry photographs. Vada’s various cries for attention are, despite being somewhat indirect, at least healthier than silence. She’s getting her feelings out and asking for what she needs—albeit through behavior that’s seen as charming and silly rather than troubling.
In this and other ways, My Girl makes death, illness, and other painful life transitions seem more palatable (or at least bearable) to its main audience: children. Indeed, it’s amazing to consider today all that the movie packs in: puberty, a future stepmom entering the picture, dementia, and death, death, death—all delivered through quirky details that ease viewers in before dealing heavier (and ultimately melodramatic) emotional blows.
Vada’s grandmother, for example, when not staring blankly or sleeping, sings show tunes at inopportune times, her dementia used mostly, if not as comic relief, then to highlight the eccentricity of the Sultenfuss household. Our protagonist is an unusual girl who lives in an unusual house, the movie insists. As I’d come to learn firsthand as a young adult with my dad, the reality of dementia—people wandering off, getting angry or physically violent with caretakers, losing control over their bodies—is much more disruptive and painful. In My Girl, the disorder, while still triggering the protagonist’s melancholy, remains a vague malady.
Another potentially disruptive force in Vada’s life comes in the form of her father’s new love interest, Shelly. Feeling threatened—“Dad likes her better than me,” Vada tells Thomas J.—Vada tries to disrupt their courtship. Watching My Girl as an adolescent, I couldn’t help but sympathize with her. When my parents remarried, their new partners felt like strangers to me, and while I never could (or would) have vocalized it at the time, I didn’t really want them around. Revisiting the film today, I can’t help but see Jamie Lee Curtis’ character as a kind of balm to a child like me who might be worried over a divorced or widowed parent finding a new partner. The overeager makeup artist who puts the moves on, and later becomes engaged to, Vada’s dad is fashionable, personable, independent, and fun. And she lives in a groovy camper that she lets Vada and Thomas J. explore. Shelly, with her tall boots, stylish bangs, and makeup advice, is like winning the stepmom lottery. See, kids, stepmoms aren’t so bad! the movie seems to say. But Shelly offers Vada something far more important than girl talk—something her father, at first, cannot: sympathy when Vada’s best friend in the world dies.
Thomas J.’s death, from an allergic reaction to several bee stings, is foreshadowed throughout the film both specifically (this isn’t the first time we see those bees, and earlier Vada enquires about a rather small coffin) and more generally. Like so many of My Girl’s details, death is introduced in more abstract, lower-stakes ways. At the film’s start, Vada lures a group of neighborhood boys into her morgue-cum-house by promising to show them a dead body, only to open an empty coffin. “Sometimes when we get them, they’re not completely dead,” she explains. She then points out her grandmother sitting in the other room as the rocking corpse of a punchline, the grandmother’s illness again used mainly for humor. The prank eases young viewers into the idea of death, if not its actuality. Even the knowledge that Vada’s mother died giving birth to her operates as more an amorphous source of the protagonist’s idiosyncratic attention-seeking and wistful depth. It’s not until Thomas J. dies that Vada admits out loud that she’s afraid she killed her.
While many of my thoughts about My Girl have changed—I can’t help but have far more sympathy for Vada, as unbearable as she may still seem—they haven’t with regard to Thomas J.’s death or Vada’s response. Her weeping monologue over his casket felt, and still feels, melodramatic. It bothered me as an adolescent to hear my friends brag about how much they cried watching the movie, and this scene in particular. It formed them into a particularly feminine clique, as though they were better girls than I for expressing their emotions so openly. At the same time, I viewed it as a personal badge of honor that such maudlin fare didn’t have its intended effect on me. Although today I read the scene similarly, I wouldn’t begrudge anyone their tears. My Girl’s funeral scene is misery porn, there to elicit a specific response.
But what always struck me as a calculated tearjerker for girls now feels, to my surprise, more complex. It’s an introduction to adolescent viewers of some of life’s most painful events, even if those events aren’t always depicted in the most realistic ways. And therein lies My Girl’s effectiveness. A more realistic depiction of illness, death, and change might have been too much for its young audience—though only the most innocuous of films would settle for as rosy an ending as My Girl does, with Vada trading in her overalls for a dress, riding her bike with a new best friend, and saying (in voice-over, no less) that everything is fine. I wouldn’t find a kindred spirit in gritty, realistic angst until Lauren Ambrose smoked, screamed, and photographed her way through Six Feet Under as Claire Fisher. But by then, I knew more about death and illness. And I could finally see that films like My Girl aren’t fondly beloved for their veracity, but for their ability to let young people try on life’s most devastating emotions before they have to live with them.