The ’80s were a golden age for pop culture-moments that featured kids in charge. Nickelodeon programs such as You Can’t Do That On Television, Double Dare, and Finders Keepers put children at the center of sketches and problem-solving missions, while book series such as The Baby-Sitters Club focused on the relationships between tweens and their sitting charges. Movies like Stand By Me, Adventures In Babysitting, and The Goonies centered on the idea that kids were smart heroes capable of fending for themselves, while The Neverending Story and Flight Of The Navigator thrust kids into unfamiliar fantasy worlds from which they had to use their smarts and survival skills to escape. Even Tom Hanks in Big, playing a kid trapped in an adult body, emphasized that a child’s sense of wonder and whimsy triumphed over stodgy adulthood. Children were brave, competent characters, while adults played second fiddle.
Oddly enough, when it comes to my memories of Troop Beverly Hills, a movie ostensibly focused on a group of scouts in the fictional Wilderness Girls organization, it’s a fumbling adult character that endures: future-divorcée Phyllis Nefler (Shelley Long), a clotheshorse troop leader who views the Beverly Hills Hotel as roughing it. This perception is perhaps due in part to internet nostalgia. Countless pieces have been written about Phyllis’ over-the-top fashion sense, which was an exaggerated take on ’80s fashion trends: garish colors and patterns, gigantic shoulder pads, big hair and hats, Barbie-caliber dresses, and capes. Jenny Lewis (who plays Phyllis’ daughter, Hannah, in the film) recently honored the movie in a video for her song “She’s Not Me.” Vanessa Bayer, wearing a brassy reddish-blonde wig, channels Nefler the scout leader by utilizing some toothy grins and on-point dance moves.
As I rewatched the movie, Phyllis’ outfits were just as fabulous as I remembered, from her silky lavender nightgown to the gigantic black glittery bird pin on a pinstriped red blouse. (I had forgotten, however, that she spent almost the entire movie smoking, using a then-glamorous cigarette holder. Ah, the ’80s.) But for as much as Phyllis enjoyed hedonistic pursuits and embodied the stereotype of a vapid housewife, I was happy to see that she wasn’t portrayed as dumb, and she didn’t suffer fools gladly. In early scenes where she and husband Freddy “The Muffler Man” Nefler (Craig T. Nelson) are fighting, she stands up for herself and her contributions to their crumbling marriage. As Freddy condescendingly criticizes her shopping habits and accuses her of not living up to her potential or ambitions, she fires right back, pointing out the pressure she’s under to fit into Beverly Hills, and how she supported him through law school by clipping coupons—and, instead of changing the world, he became “the Muffler Man.” Plus, she has a subtle, bitchy sense of humor about Freddy’s midlife-crisis girlfriend. “Oh, stop, she’ll be all right—silicone is buoyant,” Phyllis trills lightly when the much-younger woman topples overboard a ship during a Wilderness Girls patch ceremony. Later, she quips: “Where’s Lisa? Or is it past her bedtime?” The offhand remarks split the difference between innocence and snark, and come across as delightfully wicked.
The mean part of Troop Beverly Hills is reserved for Wilderness Girls’ almighty bosslady Velda (Betty Thomas), an unlikable character hellbent on destroying both the troop and a leader she views as obliterating the organization’s traditions. The hardened ex-soldier is over-the-top in her own way: She requests that her daughter not call her mom when they’re in Wilderness Girls mode—hilariously, “sir” is encouraged—and her caustic demeanor is often uncomfortably harsh. In one instance, Velda calls the members of the Beverly Hills troop “bitches,” a rather nasty pejorative to be directed toward a bunch of pre-teens who’ve never done anything to deserve that. Still, her bristling antagonism serves as the catalyst for the movie’s major plot points: To spite her, the Beverly Hills troop achieves patches at an accelerated rate, rallies around Phyllis and each other, sells a boatload of cookies, and prevails at the annual Jamboree. Velda’s aggressive nature also informs a side plotline involving meek Wilderness Girls sidekick Annie Herman (Mary Gross), who’s sent to spy on the troop and then decides being on Team Beverly Hills is way more fun.
As I was watching the movie, all of these flamboyant adult shenanigans tended to overshadow the personalities of the individual troop members, which maybe explains why they didn’t make much of an impact on me originally. But out of the entire cast, the Beverly Hills scouts are actually the most realistic, multi-dimensional characters. They’re all precocious, privileged kids, but they aren’t snooty, perhaps because they have their own painful secrets, such as divorce, lack of money, and absent parents. And there’s a distinct lack of self-consciousness about their zip code: Only when other troops laugh at them at a group meeting for inventing a camping backpack that doubles as a mini-closet do they fully realize what being from Beverly Hills actually means. This reaction doesn’t stem from snobbishness, however; instead, it’s more that they don’t realize that skills like diamond appraisal or black-tie affairs to celebrate record cookie sales aren’t normal. After years of distorting reality TV shows and tabloid inanity, it was honestly rather refreshing to see rich kids portrayed as regular kids with relatable problems.
And like so many other ’80s efforts, the kids felt like the true heart of the movie, the level-headed voices of reason there to be moral compasses for other adults. Hannah especially is used to being the adult in her relationship with her mom, and she shows it by being a quiet, steadying presence doling out advice and support—until nearly the end of the film, when her mom finally acts like a parent after Hannah puts herself in danger in the wilderness, a turning point that’s executed rather poignantly. In fact, she’s actually rather well-adjusted, considering dad Freddy pretty much ignores her and is a jerk to her mom for the entire film.
That casual maturity is naturally evident in child actress Claire (Ami Foster), whose romance-novelist mother provides comic relief by constantly muttering tawdry ideas into a tape recorder. But the other Beverly Hills Wilderness Girls are also preternaturally poised: There’s Tessa (Heather Hopper), another divorce casualty who unleashes philosophical therapy-speak at every turn; Tiffany (Emily Schulman), who’s always wheeling and dealing with her dad; and outgoing Jasmine (Tasha Scott), who negotiates her dad’s way out of a traffic ticket. Weirdly, the other characters facing deep-seated family issues, Emily (Kellie Martin) and Chica (Carla Gugino), are the weaker links, and don’t exhibit much depth despite their struggles.
And above all, the troop is effortlessly diverse, without it being an obvious ploy to ensure all types of girls are included. This gesture makes Troop Beverly Hills’ wince-inducing stereotypes more glaring: There’s a scene where overweight exercisers flock to buy cookies; Lily (Aquilina Soriano)’s parents are dictators modeled after Philippine first couple Imelda and Ferdinand Marcos, so one of her skills is money laundering; the Neflers have a Mexican housekeeper (Shelley Morrison); and Velda views working at K-Mart as an ultimate punishment. That the troop chants “Shopping is our greatest skill” while marching at the Jamboree is also disappointing, since they’ve spent weeks building character and strengths in other places. These moments haven’t aged well.
And despite Phyllis’ promising start, she never quite settles into a consistent character, which was maybe my biggest frustration with my re-watch of the movie. On one hand, her self-deprecation is on point: After she gets caught in a rainstorm during a troop camping trip, thereby ruining her coat with water and mud, she insists they’re not leaving the outdoor campground until they sing “Kumbaya,” dammit. Phyllis can also be quite deadpan: In a fit of pity, she’s seen binge-drinking Evian water, and while in divorce court with the troop—for a badge, of course—she conspiratorially tells them, “Never go to Reno, girls. The California community property laws can’t be beat.” Yet aside from these glimmers of complexity, her character keeps being pushed into being someone who’s bad at directions, can’t take care of herself, and is perceived as weak—even if just a few scenes ago she was showing off her burgeoning self-confidence. The continual shift between fierce, independent woman and helpless shopaholic is jarring, and undermines all of her personal and troop-centric accomplishments. If anything, it felt like this constant backpedaling kept happening to pad the movie’s length: At a shade over 100 minutes, the last half-hour or so dragged out quite a bit.
Yet despite this quibble, I was pleasantly surprised at how entertaining Troop Beverly Hills still is. Besides the fashion, cars, and smoking, the movie isn’t necessarily dated by pop-culture trends, which means it feels less tied to ’80s nostalgia than other films. And there’s something quite genuine about Phyllis taking on her Wilderness Girls role. This was no bargain or compromise: The movie starts with her enthusiastically applying to lead the troop, and she’s very serious about wanting to do a good job for Hannah and her friends. You want her personally to do well, and you root for her throughout the movie to help her ragtag troop succeed. Phyllis wasn’t that much different than her charges, and that equal footing is what ultimately makes Troop Beverly Hills such a charming relic.