My sister and I have very different tastes. She has largely abandoned her Chicago roots, while I still look on the best city in the world as home (even though I have no intention of living there again). She likes listening to whatever music is current and popular, whereas I sit here typing this review with lo-fi chillhop playing in the background that is heard by a relatively small number of people on YouTube. She stopped eating red meat during one of her pregnancies, but I would devour a ribeye right now if set before me. I would. Try it. Perhaps that is a desperate attempt to get somebody to bring me a steak. Our movie tastes are usually divergent too. For instance, as kids we had two Disney VHS tapes, one for her and one for me. Hers was Alice in Wonderland (1951), and mine was The Sword in the Stone (1963). One film we agreed on, though, was Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead (1991).
I had not seen Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead since the 1990s, and I was a little afraid that it would be full of dated material that would make for an uncomfortable modern viewing experience. To be sure, there are some elements that seemed okay in the last decade of the twentieth century that today you would likely not see in a film. For example, in the first few minutes we see Sue Ellen “Swell” Crandell (Christina Applegate) disappointed that she is not going with her fellow high school graduates to Europe, but excited by getting to be on her own (albeit with her siblings) for the whole summer while her mom (Concetta Tomei) vacations in Australia. None of that sounds too out of the ordinary. It is when Sue Ellen receives the news that they are going to have a babysitter, Mrs. Sturak (Eda Reiss Merin), that she goes outside to fume about being treated like a child that you see something not often filmed. By “fume,” not only do I mean that she is upset but that she is also smoking a cigarette. Mom seems okay with it as she comes out to calm her eldest daughter down. I cannot recall any time in cinema where a mother has been accepting of her teenage daughter smoking. I do not wish to make a big deal out of this, but it sets an unconventional tone for the rest of the movie. Shortly after mom is gone, Mrs. Sturak’s reign of discipline comes to an abrupt end as she dies of apparent shock when she enters the unoccupied and disastrously unkempt room of eldest son and death metal aficionado Kenneth “Kenny” (Keith Coogan). Instead of making the sensible move of calling the authorities, Sue Ellen sees an opportunity for the liberty she had been craving. Thus they cram the corpse into a large steamer trunk and drop it off on the steps of a mortuary with a note reading “nice old lady.” Complicating matters is the fact that when they awaken to their newfound freedom the next morning they discover the money mom had left them had been on Mrs. Sturak. Now they have no choice: one of the older kids needs to get a job. A deciding flip of a pizza box means that Sue Ellen gets elected for this unenviable task, and her first employment is at the hilariously circus themed fast food restaurant Clown Dog. I giggled more at this than was probably necessary. She cannot take the work, let alone the constant directive to be perky and smile, and quits on her first day. Before doing so, she meets Bryan (Josh Charles), the Clown Dog delivery boy, who becomes her love interest for the rest of the film. Her next move is to copy a professional resume out of a book and put her name on the top, which she then takes to a fictional fashion producer General Apparel West (GAW) hoping to become a receptionist. She is not completely aware of the lofty qualifications she put on there, but one of the company’s presidents, Rose Lindsey (Joanna Cassidy) does and immediately hires Sue Ellen to be the new executive assistant. The seventeen-year-old Sue Ellen is in way over her head, but she now has the kind of income needed to keep her family afloat until their mom gets home. This proves to be no simple task. For starters, she has to lie to Bryan about where she is working because Bryan’s sister, Carolyn (Jayne Brook), is Sue Ellen’s rival at GAW. Her siblings, led by the mostly irresponsible pot smoking Kenny, blow through Sue Ellen’s money at an alarming rate. Oh, yeah, and she also has to keep her true age a secret from her boss. Rose, though, sees nothing but remarkable potential in Sue Ellen, and even gives the younger woman the responsibility of coming up with a new product line that they hope will save GAW. It is while unveiling these new clothes at a show at her house that everything comes crashing down for Sue Ellen. Carolyn has discovered Sue Ellen’s true age, mom comes back early in the middle of the show, and Bryan attempts to win Sue Ellen back while she is at the podium. Mom, and Rose for that matter, are initially perturbed, but they both see the remarkable job that Sue Ellen has done. There is just one last question voiced by mom at the end: where is the baby sitter?
When we are teenagers we all wish we were older because we think that adults have this ability to do whatever they want, whenever they want. Okay, maybe Kenny is not quite like that in Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead, at first. But Sue Ellen smoking, claiming she is now a career woman, and taking charge of her household are part of that desire to at least act grownup. Life is a funny thing, though you do not need movies to tell you this fact. When we are young we want to be old, and when we are old we want to be young. God asks us to see things differently, to be content with our station in life but always straining to go deeper in our relationship with Him. That should be the driving force behind anyone’s pursuits, and whatever we do in the process is merely a byproduct of drawing nearer to Thee. When we pine for things that are beyond our grasp at any one time, such as wishing we are twenty-seven when we are actually seventeen as does Sue Ellen, it can lead to complications. While she demonstrates that she is ready to handle the kind of responsibility that her mother did not, in the end she comes to the realization that she still has some maturing to do. She is humbled by her experience, and Rose even asks her to stay on in spite of her age. But Sue Ellen”s true humility shines through. Any time we can see our journey for what it is and know that there is still so much more to do, and that each step is important and should be fully appreciated, growth occurs. That is true for people of any age. The path to Heaven is paved with moments like these. Sure, there is some objectionable material in the movie, but it also drives home a valuable lesson in getting older that is timeless and, well, Christian.
I did not think I would enjoy Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead now as much as I did when I was twelve. I suspect I laughed at places where I did not when I was young, like when a group of drag queens with the leader dressed as Liza Minnelli steal Mrs. Sturak’s 1950s era Buick. It was random and hysterical, and I had a good chuckle over that scene. That would have whooshed by over my head in 1991. Still, given some of the content, if I had young, impressionable pre-teens, I probably would not show this movie to them. However, if you are in the mood for a little nostalgia, you can do worse than this one.