“But, Thor is my hero.”
Adventures in Babysitting is turning 30 this weekend. It’s a childhood favorite that’s stayed with me through the years and one which I recently shared with my oldest kid. This joint is three decades old, and it’s still a wild ride. Four kids from the suburbs get lost in the city and deal with adult problems. It’s a classic coming-of-age story, and as it enters its fourth decade, it’s important for you to understand that this is perhaps in fact the best coming-of-age story of all time. Yeah, it’s like that.
Christopher Columbus, the director, is great at telling stories filled with heart. “Heart” is my way of saying that whether the situation is outlandish or fantastical, the work feels genuine. No one’s selling out. No one’s phoning it in. The characters aren’t contrived or shoehorned into a story. I don’t feel like I’m being condescended to, man. Adventures in Babysitting clears all of these hurdles.
Chris Parker (Elisabeth Shue), the titular babysitter, starts and finishes the film genuinely. From her opening mime to “Then He Kissed Me” by The Crystals to its reprisal in the final shot, I see a totally authentic 17-year-old girl. Her hero’s journey into hell to save a friend (Penelope Ann Miller) and protect her charges is oodles of fun. More than that, it’s totally consumable whether you’re an adult or a kid. The message is right there on the surface of the film: the world is not black and white. People are complicated, and very little is what you expect. For that alone, I can revisit the film with some regularity.
Fitting with the the theme of the film, there’s something more nuanced going on under the surface. Let’s get down to the actual heart of the story, the construction, the thing that makes it beat. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that there are four main characters. Go with me on this. I’m about to delve into a bit of amateur psychology. Adventures in Babysitting is about the id versus the super-ego, and ultimately, the arrival of the moderating approach of the ego. Okay. Let’s break this all down.
This is Chris Parker’s story. At the outset of the film, she’s totally ruled by her super-ego. It’s the moralizing bit we get from our parents. It’s the voice in our head that uses declarative statements about Right and Wrong and Thou Shalts or Thou Shalt Nots. This is why Chris has this black and white view of the world. The problem is that a person ruled strictly by the super-ego is a bit exploitable. It expects everyone to play by the same rules because anything else would be inconceivable.
Her boyfriend, Mike (Bradley Whitford), is a sleaze-bag, but she can’t see it because she doesn’t yet appreciate that people could be so duplicitous or self-serving. That’s the setup to the story. It’s very simple. It’s completely digestible by a younger audience. And it follows through every bit of its promise from the outset. Every secondary character helps to propel the story through the idea that some people look scary but are actually good people or willing to do the right thing at the very least. Just because people are different, including law-breakers, it doesn’t mean they’re Villains.
Let’s get nuts. This is Chris’s movie. This is her time. If that’s true, and you know it is, I don’t think it’s any coincidence that Chris has three companions. They’re the embodiment of her id, super-ego, and ego.
Daryl (Anthony Rapp) is pure id. That’s the unrestrained part of our mind. The base instinct side. It’s totally reactive. Whatever we would think or want to do, Daryl’s the one that does it. Teenage boy finds someone attractive? Make a pass! Is she a prostitute? Less complication! Wanna drink beer and get rowdy at a party? Belly up to the bar and crush beers! A woman makes a pass at him? Go for it. He sees a magazine he wants? Steal it. He’s also the first to resort to violence. Ever want to kick someone right in the ass? He’ll do that, too. But, he’s also ripe to put himself or his friends in more dangerous situations. Consequences are high and totally unconsidered. He almost gets destroyed at the party when the woman’s jock boyfriend doesn’t appreciate the role of the jilted-lover. The crime bosses chase the foursome because of his inability to moderate his base instincts.
Sara (Maia Brewton) is the super-ego, which is the moralizing part of the mind. She is literally dressed like Thor for the entirety of the movie. Psychology and comic books is happening right now. Buckle up. Thor’s defining characteristic is his ability to wield Mjolnir. What’s inscribed on that Hammer of Thor, by none other than the All-Father himself? “Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor.” The super-ego is meant to be the hard-line, internalized moral values of our parents or society which compel us to curb our actions and fall in line. We march to its beat, or we take the full unrelenting force of its unyielding judgement. Sara is a free-roaming character and she feels perfectly comfortable with her surroundings. Almost like a demi-god in her own right. She certainly feels perfectly comfortable going through Chris’s purse and judging her for its contents. I think there’s a little bit of innocence sprinkled into her character. But, she truly expects the most moral decisions of the people around her. When she doesn’t get it, she criticizes.
When the auto-repair shop owner, Dawson (Vincent D’Onofrio in a truly majestic appearance), holds them up over a matter of five dollars, she gives him hell. There’s two things going on here. She’s deeply concerned to see the fallibility of what she considers her ultimate moral guide. She takes him for Thor. While Dawson looks very Thor-like, that’s the point of the scene, right? She’s concerned about the failure of her moral authority. That’s a devastating lesson we all eventually learn. Second, she’s trying to bring him back to worthy standing in the eyes of Mjolnir. She’s coercing him into thinking like she does: from an explicitly moral and value based position. In this case, it’s successful. Money and business do not matter when you are staring at four stranded kids. Figure it out. Do better. We see the limits and the potential for success of the super-ego in a single scene.
Brad (Keith Coogan), poor love-struck Brad, is the ego. He’s the mediator between the impulsive desires of the id and the hyper-vigilant, moral protector, the super-ego. He spends most of the movie endorsing the actions of either Sara or Daryl. On the surface level of the story Brad is totally, and quite reasonably, in love with Chris. I think it’s more interesting that the final moment of the movie is Brad tacitly endorsing Chris’s new potential beau. It fits the plot line of the story and it makes a certain amount of logical sense. Brad can’t finish the film thinking he’ll fit in her world as a boyfriend. But, for the way I feel like their characters were constructed, his endorsement at the end is emblematic of Chris coming to terms with a more complex world.
A complex world is what we get in our our secondary characters. John Pruitt (John Ford Noonan) is Scary Tow Truck Driver. He’s got a hook for an arm! And a great big bushy beard! On the face of it, he’s intimidating. He quickly wins the kids over after he offers to tow them into the city and pay for a new tire. However, he gets sidetracked when he finds out his wife is cheating on him again. Suddenly he turns into a reckless man, overcome by id and rage and ready to truly do murder. It’s a bit zany in context, but it’s a very strong look at how people can be many things. Pruitt is clearly not a balanced man you’d want to leave in charge of your kids. However, he isn’t a baby-murdering monster. Yay!?? And, for that matter, none of his violent rage is ever directed towards his wife, only towards the Other Man. Violence is violence, this is an interesting choice.
It’s the same for Joe Gipp (Calvin Levels). He’s clearly genuinely a good guy, but he has made stealing his trade of choice. On the outside, he’s a car thief working a dodgy area of the city. This is not the sort of person you want to associate with for obvious reasons. However, it doesn’t mean he has to be uncouth. His failure is that he promises, in good faith, something he can’t reasonably expect to be able to deliver. No way can you take a group of strangers to your crime lair and expect the Big Boss to be totally copacetic with getting them a ride home. That’s another fundamental truth to life. You’ll meet plenty of well-meaning people who genuinely offer something they don’t realize they can’t promise. It sucks, but that’s life. It’s a common experience on both sides of the issue.
This underlying construction is what enables this movie to persist. These are fundamental experiences everyone addresses in their transition to adulthood. It allows the different character beats in the film that we all know and love to feel totally authentic and in place with the world they’re exploring. That moment on the subway train when the gangs are about to go full on Warriors style confrontation? Super-ego, still guiding Chris, drives her out into the middle of the two rival gangs to implore them to, effectively, mind their manners and give them free passage at the next stop because they don’t deserve to be in the middle of this conflict. When that doesn’t work out, because duh, id pushes Brad (ego) out to aggressively argue, rhetorically, for their rights. And when that doesn’t work, Chris goes full id. The gang member tells them not to “fuck with the Lords of Hell” and stabs Brad in the foot. Chris snatches that knife right out of his foot and threatens the Lord of Hell himself. “Don’t fuck with the babysitter!”
It’s a terrific line. It shows her cycling through the different types of approach. It’s a major step in her opening her mind to the possibility that she may need to rely on a more comprehensive approach to the world. It’s thrilling and fun, but totally essential and earned.
In fact, that’s why the emotional climax of the movie is when she confronts her sleaze-bag boyfriend at the French restaurant. In that scene, she comes to terms with the fact that some people will just outright lie to you to manipulate you. There are totally and completely selfish people in the world. Some of those people can be redeemed, like Dawson. And, some of them need to have their ass kicked to the curb.
Most coming-of-age movies feel very situation-based. Here’s the setup. The group gets through it. We all had a good time and learned a little. Adventures in Babysitting is constructed in a way that mirrors the psychological development of a child maturing into an adult. Every step of the way, with new characters and interactions, the film reinforces that approach. I’m in love with the movie for that. The amazing thing is for all that depth, I can show it to my kid and she can understand and enjoy the movie. Because the joint is ridiculously fun. It’s a marvelous feat. All I can say is, if you haven’t seen it — or even haven’t seen it recently — go check the movie out. It’s streaming on Netflix at the moment. It couldn’t be easier to watch it. It’s a moral imperative.