ADVENTURES IN BABYSITTING (Chris Columbus, 1987)
High school senior Chris Parker (Elisabeth Shue) is all set to go on a big anniversary date to a French restaurant with her boyfriend Mike (Bradley Whitford) when he drops by at the last minute to cancel. Although she’d prefer to stay home and spend the Friday night moping, Chris ends up accepting a late request to babysit for the Andersons.
In ADVENTURES IN BABYSITTING what should be a quiet evening in Oak Park watching over the Andersons’ young,Thor-obsessed daughter Sara (Maia Brewton) becomes one crazy night protecting three kids in downtown Chicago. A panicked call to Chris from her friend Brenda (Penelope Ann Miller) sets the series of wild events in motion. Brenda decided to run away from home but unwisely spent all her money taking a cab into the city. Now that she’s having second thoughts and is frightened by the eccentrics at the bus station, she needs Chris to come get her.
Chris wants to leave Sara in the care of her 15-year-old brother Brad (Keith Coogan), but the main thing he is capable of nurturing is his crush on the pretty upperclassman. The two siblings coerce the babysitter into taking them with her. Also tagging along is Brad’s friend Daryl (Anthony Rapp), who is convinced Chris is the centerfold in the current issue of Playboy.
The station wagon Chris is driving blows a tire while on the expressway into Chicago. Complicating matters further, she forgot her purse in the rush to get downtown, which leaves them stranded with no transportation and money. A kindly one-handed tow truck driver offers assistance, but rather than take them straight to the garage, he is diverted to his home where he finds his wife in flagrante delicto with another man. Once shots are fired in the domestic dispute, Chris and the kids run off, only to be deposited in the chop shop headquarters for a national car theft ring and being pursued by the crime syndicate’s bosses.
Released by Walt Disney production label Touchstone Pictures, ADVENTURES IN BABYSITTING combines the parent company’s family film qualities with some of the racier elements in John Hughes’ teen movies. A judicious amount of strong language and a Playboy magazine’s pivotal role in the plot provide the off-color window dressing (and PG-13 rating) for what is otherwise a squeaky clean story of three teenagers and a pre-teen getting into some pickles.
Although a fear of urban life runs through the film, the exaggerated vision of danger lurking around every corner reads more like a child’s imagining of the bad parts of the big city or an early 1960s movie’s sanitized portrayal of seedy sections of town and characters. ADVENTURES IN BABYSITTING is set in then-present day suburban Chicago, but the light tone, classical style, and Shue as Sandra Dee stand-in are more indicative of a cinematic mindset from approximately 25 years earlier. Use of vintage R&B and The Crystals’ 1963 single “Then He Kissed Me”, which appears over the opening and closing scenes, also suggest a throwback perspective. The world of ADVENTURES IN BABYSITTING is one where the bad men are cartoon villains, not rough and tumble types capable of any serious harm, and the scary but nice ones have hearts of gold.
The innocence found in Chris Columbus’ directorial debut ranks among its most appealing attributes and explains why it has aged relatively gracefully in the years since its 1987 premiere. For instance, the scene in which Chris and the kids stumble into a blues club and have Albert Collins insist they sing a song to earn the ability to leave shouldn’t work. Nevertheless, the corny bemoaning of babysitting blues charms by force of spirit and unironic effort.
Central to ADVENTURES IN BABYSITTING’s wholesomeness is Shue’s sincere performance. She displays why Chris would be in demand on the babysitting circuit, popular with other girls her age, and the object of affection for underclassmen and college guys. She’s responsible and conscientious but not overbearing, which would endear her to parents and her young charges. Chris is also friendly, aware of her attractiveness, and vulnerable without being vain or cruel. The adventures Chris must survive are over the top, but Shue grounds the film by playing the role with the courage and just below the surface desperation that feels true to how a real teen might handle the predicaments she’s thrust into. Beyond her character, ADVENTURES IN BABYSITTING possesses a knowingness about how kids and teenagers react under adverse circumstances and when they’re trying to impress.
In a sense, ADVENTURES IN BABYSITTING is a template for the slicker PG-13 fare that Disney now produces to keep its brand from being associated solely with entertainment for young kids. It’s rougher around the edges--the swearing in it is less likely to make the cut these days--and it feels less like it’s been focus group tested for maximum box office revenues. ADVENTURES IN BABYSITTING is an outlandish teen comedy, but in keeping with the John Hughes influence, it doesn’t take the easy way out at the end. That in itself is worth a good tip for a job well done.