Word for Word
by ALICE GREGORY
dir. Howard Zieff
It took great restraint, watching My Girl last weekend, not to mouth along to all the dialogue. I was a little nervous – it had been a decade since I had seen it last. Though I knew 11-year-old Vada Sultenfuss ("Tough break!" "I like my name.") couldn't possibly be as compelling to me now, I worried that I wouldn't be able to empathize with my former self who tried to imitate her every gesture. Only recently have I heard people my age reference My Girl as some sort of common childhood artifact. I didn’t realize it was a generational touchstone, and I’m glad I wasn’t aware of its popularity as a kid. If I had known that my worship was anything less than private, I might have been embarrassed. Idols should be individual.
Poor Howard Zieff. It’s always surprising to re-remember that My Girl isn’t a John Hughes movie. It bears all the marks of his auteurship: the leafy, recognizably American town; the broken fourth wall; the cued pop music. It’s tender and funny and sad and it takes its young protagonist seriously. Vada (Anna Chlumsky), the daughter of a widowed mortician (Dan Aykroyd), grows up lonely, somewhat neglected, and preoccupied with death. Her only friend is the similarly unpopular Thomas J. (Macaulay Culkin) in whom she confides her love of her teacher, Mr. Bixler (Griffin Dunne) and her hatred of her soon-to-be-stepmother, Shelly (Jamie Lee Curtis). When Vada loses her mood ring in the woods, Thomas J. goes searching for it, is attacked by a swarm of bees, and dies. Only in the grief-ridden aftermath of the event does Vada bond with her father, finally accept that she did not kill her own mother who died in childbirth, and come to love Shelly. Vada’s voiceover is introspective and familiar, full of tidy revelations and moments of self-actualization.
I remember not only the words and intonation of every line of dialogue but also trying, gracelessly, to integrate them into daily conversation:
“Oh, wow, a real Evil Knievel.”
“Nephritis is a kidney disease, you don't get it from hot dogs.”
“Dad, didn't you say you needed prunes REAL bad?
It goes without saying that the lines were too specific to blend in very seamlessly. Like an idiot savant, my recall can be at once prodigious and frighteningly narrow. I can still recite Vada’s poem by heart (“I like ice cream a whole lot/It tastes good when days are hot/On a cone or in a dish/This would be my only wish/ Vanilla, chocolate, or rocky road/Even with pie à la mode”), but I seemed to have forgotten the more major elements of the story: the general morbidity, her dream to be a writer, the brazen foreshadowing of Thomas J.’s death (the tiny coffin carried in at the beginning, the boy in the wheelchair at the doctor’s office, the dead fish). This attention to detail at the expense of a larger message, if anything, set the precedent for later lapses in critical reading.
I’ve thought a lot about why I revered Vada Sultenfuss so much. Not having brothers, the fact that her best friend is a boy must have been attractive to me. I too had a close male friend, Charles, but our rapport was much different. I didn’t have the upper hand, for one; I mostly trailed him, pretending to enjoy his hobbies: netting crabs, hunting mushrooms, firing potato guns. Charles is in school to become a dentist now, and we don’t have much in common anymore. But I remember our friendship as imbued with romance, much of which was mentally kindled, surely in the image of My Girl.
Cool Girls abound in middle school, thin out in high school, and are mostly forgotten about by college. They can effortlessly transform a heinous outfit into a stunning one and render a forgettable song into an anthem. No matter their age, they force aporetic thought: is she wearing that necklace because it’s cool or is that necklace cool because she’s wearing it? Adolescent overvaluation of another person – fictional or not – is good practice for being in love, a state in which the hierarchy of action and justification is inverted and every gesture seems retroactively inspired, amazing because they did it.
Vada was my original Cool Girl, endowing random items with totemic value: phrenology charts, Sunbonnet Sue quilts, Schwinn bikes with streamers, those perfectly worn-in overalls the Gap could never replicate. And so many mannerisms to copy! There was that half-cannon ball she did when jumping into the lake, left leg jutting out, nose plugged. There was the way her forearms hyperextended on the nurse's desk. I learned the word "resilient" from her and the phrase "intellectually stimulating." I overused both.
I gave myself hangnails and taught myself to dribble a basketball like Vada. I wasn’t reckless enough to be become blood brothers with anyone though, as she does with Thomas J. – I knew about AIDS. I asked for a copy of War and Peace for Christmas one year, not realizing that Vada reading Tolstoy in 5th grade was meant to indicate naiveté and pretension. My mom refused the request, suspecting correctly that my interest was not literary. Instead, she told me that not only would I like Anna Karenina better but that we already owned a copy.
I envied the sort of after-dark freedom shared between Vada and Thomas Jay, the warm nights of Madison, Pennsylvania, which allowed her to wear peasant blouses while I, in Northern California, was stuck bundled in Patagonias. These were the days before eBay, so my imitation was more approximate than it was accurate. I wanted a red, straw cloche like Vada’s, but a rust-colored, canvas bucket hat would have to do. I wore a mood ring, but the gem would fall off during games of recess foursquare and I had to Epoxy it back on when I got home everyday. Like Vada, I dressed in flannel shirts, cut-off shorts, and high-top converse. Only now can I look back and identify the uniform of a lesbian fixed-gear biker.
I also, obviously, just thought Vada was really pretty. At one point, Shelly catalogues her every feature: “sparkling eyes,” “the cutest little nose,” an amazing mouth.” There is indeed an overripeness to Anna Chlumsky’s beauty, an actress whose face, come puberty, would rot into a Topanga-esque vulgarity. Macaulay Culkin too: a cherub-turned-skull. Together, they’re like a visual justification for pedophilia; their fresh faces stamped with the expiration date of looming adolescence. Acne and swollen hips are just around the corner. Get ‘em before they turn.
Though surely unable to articulate it, even at nine I could sense that there was some crucial contrast at play between intellectualism and infantile habits, between reading War and Peace and climbing willow trees. Vada Sultenfuss represented a sort of personality that I’m still attracted to now, that ability to modulate between two polar registers: the jock who studies, the scholar who watches reality TV, the White House chief of staff who attends all his childrens’ soccer games.
Really though, what I was most drawn to was the film’s permission to indulge imaginary crises. Like most everything directed at young adults, My Girl suggests that reckoning with tragedy yields complexity, that misery breeds interiority. Vada is smarter, funnier, and more feeling than her classmates. She succeeds in adult writing classes, talks sarcastically about terminal illness, and is hopelessly in love with her teacher. Growing up, I feared that I was too untroubled to be interesting. My Girl was my first confrontation not with death, but with its absence in my own life. It prodded me to hypothesize perverse fantasies about being orphaned, about cousins drowning. I knew I couldn’t rely on my own experience for the sort of suffering we’re told makes one smart.
I could recruit friends to play cards with me on the front deck, as Vada does; I could fast-forward to the scene in which she recites her final poem and copy it down, word-for-word, in my notebook; I could convince my parents to buy me a goldfish, like the one she wins at the carnival. I could acquire Vada’s props and mime her movements, but I was unable to copy her melancholy. My mother wasn’t dead; my father wasn’t an undertaker; my friends were all alive. Superficial mimicry seemed like the easiest way to cultivate depth. My emotions were – and still are – performative. Affecting a sentiment until I feel it remains my first instinct, my greatest strength, and my worst foible. Thanks, Vada!
Alice Gregory is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in New York. She tumbls here and you can read Salad & Candy here. She last wrote in these pages about Breaking Upwards.
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