Adventures in Babysitting (1987) – Directed by Chris Columbus – Starring Elisabeth Shue, Maia Brewton, Keith Coogan, Anthony Rapp, Calvin Levels, Penelope Ann Miller, Bradley Whitford, John Ford Noonan, Vincent D’Onofrio, Lolita Davidovitch, George Newbern, Clark Johnson, and Albert Collins.
I had forgotten that Bradley Whitford played the jerk boyfriend.
I had forgotten that Vincent D’Onofrio played “Thor.”
I had forgotten that Penelope Ann Miller played the nervous friend.
I had forgotten that Lolita Davidovitch played the skanky college girl.
But I hadn’t forgotten how totally gorgeous Elisabeth Shue was in ADVENTURES IN BABYSITTING, which I believe was the first movie I ever got my parents to take me and my mates to when I was a kid without accompanying us inside, and it was just because I had such a crush on Elisabeth Shue. It makes me feel a bit old that BABYSITTING came out 25 years ago, but re-watching it last night for the first time in probably 20 years, I was really surprised at how well the movie holds up. ADVENTURES IN BABYSITTING isn’t any kind of cinematic classic, but it is a pretty good Chris Columbus version of a John Hughes film.
Chris Parker (Shue) is super excited about a night out in the city with her boyfriend Mike Todwell (Bradley Whitford), but he stands her up because his sister is sick. Chris ends up getting a late call to babysit for the Andersons: Sara (Mara Brewton) and Brad (Keith Coogan), with the bonus inclusion of Brad’s friend Daryl (Anthony Rapp). Chris’ friend Brenda (Penelope Ann Miller) runs away from home but gets stuck in a bus station in Chicago, so she begs Chris to come get her. Against her better judgment, Chris piles the kids into her mom’s car to head to the big, scary city. They get a flat, wacky adventures happen, and they make it home precious minutes before Mr. and Mrs. Anderson.
I’m not going to rehash the plot, except to say that Columbus’ pacing is spot-on. One adventure follows quickly on the previous escapade, making BABYSITTING a fun, fast-paced ride. Everything that happens to the kids – a flat tire, a tow-truck driver with a hook for a hand, getting trapped in a stolen car, escaping some thugs, singing with Albert Collins, climbing down the outside of a high-rise office building – is just realistic enough, and just a bit more unrealistic that the escapades that precede it, that the film stays grounded enough for me to go along for the increasingly silly ride.
What I really want to get into is the film’s underlying principle: White people are afraid of black people.
Let me specify that statement a bit. By “white people” I mean “people who live in the suburbs” and by “black people” I mean “people who live in the city.” Like the typical Hughes film, BABYSITTING focuses on protected, upper class white kids from the suburbs who are confronted by scary black people. There’s a whole strain of white kid movies that touch on this fear of black people in often subtle, but still disturbing ways: Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Animal House, Road Trip, etc. But even when the Hughes/Columbus/Reitman/Ramis films don’t explicitly touch on race, they are prime examples of Toni Morrison’s concept of the “Africanist presence,” which argues that even when black people aren’t physically present in an American narrative, their presence is still felt.
In BABYSITTING we see both the explicit and implied fear of black people in the fear the kids show in going into Chicago.
It’s really a pretty segmented world the kids live in out in the well-to-do suburbs as the very thought of taking the kids into the city causes Chris all sorts of anxiety. The very idea that she would take these kids INTO THE CITY plays like she’s taking them to the Titty Twister for a night of drugs, strippers, and getting eaten by vampires.
Into the city they go where they meet a scary white tow truck driver who turns out to be a nice guy (before he decides to go kill his wife’s lover) and then a scary black car thief who turns out to be a nice guy (before he chases them down for his crime boss). Both the trucker and car thief end up eschewing their bad behavior to help the kids out, so BABYSITTING is, in large part, about taking people for who they are, not who they appear to be.
Critically, however, the trucker is designed to look crazy with his hook hand, his scraggly beard, and wild eyes, while the car thief just looks like a normal guy. The idea that the crazy trucker can be a good guy willing to help them is based on his zany appearance – if he was a normal white truck driver, the kids wouldn’t have freaked out – while the idea that the car thief can be a good guy is based far more on him being a black guy than him being a car thief.
Just look at how the characters are rendered: the trucker is presented as atypical while the car thief is presented as typical.
It gets worse when Chris and the kids end up on stage at a blues club. The kids are fleeing the crime boss, run through a back door, and stumble on stage during an Albert Collins set.
Once everyone notices them, the club stops dead and the kids are nearly frozen in fear. Everyone in the club is black. All of the kids are white. Obviously, then, the black people are stunned silent by the idea of white people in their midst while obviously the kids have to be as scared by a roomful of black people listening to music as they were of the crime bosses chasing them. Chris nervously says they just want to leave but Collins insists no one can leave until they sing the blues. So Chris and the kids make up a song on the spot with help from Collins and his backing band and the crowd goes wild because, oh-my-god, white kids from the burbs sing a song about how tough it is to be a babysitter.
Now, as a kid growing up in a 99% white town in central Massachusetts, all of this made perfect sense because our conception of non-Christians was largely created by the media, so we were used to black people being portrayed as scary. My parents and most of my friends’ parents HATED going in to Boston, even though we could get to Fenway Park in 90 minutes tops, so the fear of a city made some sense, too.
And look at what happens here. Sara – 8-year old Sara – is terribly afraid to be confronted by a room full of black people at the blues club but she has no fear in climbing out a window at the top of a freaking skyscraper in downtown Chicago to escape another scary black guy.
Now, as an older guy, all of this seems a bit … disturbing, but then, that’s what Columbus was creating here, a white kid, suburban nightmare fantasy that ultimately reveals city people of all colors are good and bad, and that you have to take people for who they are, not what they are.
Enough of that. You might be asking why I’m reviewing this movie in the middle of all this AVENGERS talk. Well, whether you were wondering that or not, I’m going to tell you. When I decided that May was going to be Avengers Month, I worried a bit about finding enough Avengers-specific material to fill the month, so I decided to include movies that featured actors from AVENGERS, and then I decided to branch out to include BABYSITTING because Sara is such a huge fan of Thor (she spends the movie walking around wearing Thor’s helmet and wearing his hammer). It’s her love of Thor that ends up winning over Vincent D’Onofrio’s mechanic (whom she mistakes as being Thor), which allows them to leave with Chris’ car.
Good for you, Thor.