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This weekend a minor 80’s gem turns 30 years old with little fanfare but plenty of positive memories, especially for young girls. Adventures in Babysitting is a lovely little 80’s nostalgia piece that, though some of its unintended politics haven’t aged well, the film’s silly little heart was always in the right place and that’s more than can be said about most 80’s teen comedies.
Adventures in Babysitting casts the winning and refreshing young Elizabeth Shue who gets roped into babysitting for The Anderson family after her no-goodnik boyfriend (Bradley Whitford) breaks off their date to a fancy restaurant. Having nothing better to do, Chris accepts the babysitting money to sit with Sara (Maia Brewton) and Brad (Keith Coogan), a boy two years younger than Chris and nursing a years long infatuation with her.
The plot of Adventures in Babysitting kicks in when Chris’ best friend Brenda (Penelope Ann Miller) runs away from home and calls Chris when she realizes what a horrible mistake she’s made. Needing to drive to downtown Chicago to pick up Brenda at a bus station, Chris is forced to take the kids with her, with Brad’s friend Daryl (Anthony Rapp) inviting himself along by threatening to tell the parents that Chris took little kids downtown at night.
On their way to the bus station, they blow a tire on the expressway and must then find a way to get the car fixed and back to the suburbs by 1 AM, when mom and dad will be home. The group faces several trials including a crazy but sweet tow truck driver, a car thief/magical man who helps them out of not one, not two but three super dangerous hostage situations and even a musical number at a blues restaurant where they get to sing a very silly song about babysitting backed up by none other than the legendary Albert Collins.
Adventures in Babysitting was directed by Chris Columbus in his directorial debut and the shabbiness of the debut feature is charming. Early in his career, Columbus indulged in a fascination with breaking the placid surface of suburbia with wacky hijinks. A child of the Chicago suburbs himself, Columbus has a genuine love of the upper middle-class striver even as he uses their excesses as a weapon when he takes his suburbanites into the cold, scary city or, as in Home Alone, when the cold scary city comes to the suburbs.
Is Columbus saying anything remarkable about the facade of suburbia? No, not really, he’s making use of a very old trope about naive white people blundering into a big city they are ill-prepared for but he’s good at employing the trope and that at least makes it tolerable and even at times, quite fun. There is no big message in Adventures in Babysitting; it’s quite a shallow movie but it never tried to be more than a shallow, silly misadventure and in that the film is quite successful.
I hadn’t seen Adventures in Babysitting in several years and I remember thinking that the film did not hold up to my child’s eye view back in 87. Watching Adventures in Babysitting on its 30th year anniversary weekend I found myself regaining the child-like appreciation I had for this silly trifle of a movie. The young cast appears to have been having a great time, Chris Columbus’s more adult bits of humor are awkward and a little uncomfortable as an adult but mostly harmless and most importantly, Adventures in Babysitting has a good heart.
There is a scene late in the film when Maia Brewton, the youngest member of our child ensemble, as a little girl obsessed with the comic book character Thor, sees a man who looks just like her idol, a mechanic played by Vincent D’onofrio. When he is rude to them the little girl is hurt, but believes she knows why, it’s part of his secret identity and he needs his helmet to be a hero so she offers him her cherished Thor helmet. It’s a simple and predictable scene but it is also very sweet and genuine. Chris Columbus is pretty great at creating little moments like this in movies and this may be one of the best little comedy scenes of his career.
Sure, I could go into the poorly aging racial and sexual politics at play on the edges of Adventures in Babysitting but is that really necessary? Were Adventures in Babysitting a genuinely ugly movie masquerading as family entertainment I might go after the movie but the reality of Adventures in Babysitting is that is unintentionally harmful, a product of a less understanding time.
Judging Adventures in Babysitting by the standards of its day it is an above average bit of teen fluff with a good heart, a few pretty big laughs strung together by a first time director basking in the joys of having all of the toys to play with. Adventures in Babysitting is silly, stupid fun that resides in a pleasant corner of our popular culture that I don't mind revisiting every now and then.