Given the recent surge of 1980s popular culture nostalgia, discussions of that decade’s iconic films unfailingly revert to the unique 1980s teen comedy genre, always dominated by the catalog of John Hughes. But sadly, some outstanding films from that era are overlooked or even forgotten, and all teen movies from this period seem to be unfairly compared to Hughes’s work. One such semi-lost and under-appreciated gem is director Chris Columbus’s delightful 1987 teen comedy “Adventures in Babysitting.”
The movie opens in Chicago’s Oak Park suburb with the pretty, charming, 17-year-old girl next door Chris Parker (Elisabeth Shue) preparing for a romantic evening with her dreamy boyfriend Mike Todwell (Bradley Whitford). Mike finally arrives, only to inform Chris that his younger sister is sick, and that he is unable to take her out. Devastated, Chris mopes in her bedroom, seeking comfort from her band geek friend Brenda (Penelope Ann Miller), who is frustrated in her own right with family problems, threatening to spike her stepmother’s Tab with Drano. Interrupting their pity party, Chris’s mother enters and notifies Chris that neighbors Mr. and Mrs. Anderson are going out for the evening and need a last minute sitter for their kids, Brad and Sara. Chris reluctantly agrees and drives over to the Andersons’ home where we meet the 8-year-old, Thor-obsessed Sara (Maia Brewton) and the awkward 15-year-old Brad (Keith Coogan), who has a not-so-subtle attraction to Chris. The Andersons depart for their office party leaving Chris in charge, and the kids settle in for a seemingly boring evening of TV watching. That is until just moments later when the phone rings and Chris is surprised to hear panic-stricken Brenda on the other line, who has run away from home and is stranded at a bus station in downtown Chicago. Brenda regrets her rash move and begs Chris to come get her. Chris hesitantly agrees, but Brad and Sara blackmail her into taking them along. While developing a cover story, the kids are ambushed by Brad’s wisecracking friend Daryl Coopersmith (Anthony Rapp), who also manipulates Chris into including him for the ride. From that point onward, we experience the big, bad city through the eyes of the kids as they get into several funny and dangerous misadventures in their quest to retrieve Brenda – and make it back home before the parents find out.
Beyond the setup of the film, the plot of “Babysitting” develops into a bit of a farce. While it is not as sophisticated, artfully crafted, or instantly memorable as say, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” it is highly entertaining, well paced, and has a well written and thoughtfully constructed story, thanks to David Simkins’s smart script. Furthermore, it is well acted, considering the inexperienced four main actors and their likeable, sympathetic characters. Lots of clever running gags and wonderful one-liners throughout the film help propel the story along.
These qualities point to the main standout quality of “Adventures in Babysitting” in that Chris, Brad, Sara, Daryl, and even many of the supporting characters are believable. Additionally, the humor of “Babysitting” comes largely from the lines and actions of the characters, all of whom are convincing and credible, for teen actors. Unlike many of Hughes’s characters, and contrary to the popular discourse surrounding his work, I can say that I knew people much like Chris, Brad, Sara, and Daryl – and even Brenda and Mr. and Mrs. Anderson for that matter.
Compared to most other 1980s teen comedies, “Babysitting” outstandingly and accurately captures the zeitgeist of the Midwestern suburbs in the mid-1980s because it does so without overly exaggerating the characters. The actors are not caricatures of teens and, furthermore, the film shows life at that time and setting as I remember it and not through hyperbolic depiction or far-fetched personalities such as Ferris Bueller, Jeff Spicoli, or the cast of “The Breakfast Club.” Even minor details such as the capture of the dreary, Midwestern winter afternoon sky at the beginning of the film give, for me, a sense of authenticity and personal memory that I have never found or identified with in other 80s teen movies. Other noteworthy factors that make “Babysitting” a unique film for its genre are that it is set during the winter and mostly at night and the story unfolds over the course of a single evening. “Babysitting” notably lacks the clichéd jocks vs. nerds theme as a major plot device like so many other teen movies. It also fittingly, if not facetiously, largely employs a classic R&B soundtrack (as opposed to 80s pop music) as the young suburbanites navigate the dark, dangerous streets of Chicago. While John Hughes may be the unofficial master of 80s teen comedies, “Adventures in Babysitting” (along with other underrated films of the era like “Real Genius,” “License to Drive,” and “Revenge of the Nerds”) deserves much credit for holding its own and resisting staleness better than other 80s teen favorites.
I distinctly remember seeing “Adventures in Babysitting” at the cinema on a whim during the summer of 1987 and it has been a favorite of mine ever since. My fondness for it could be because I remember it as a childhood favorite, but I find it just as entertaining and enjoyable today. But sadly, “Adventures in Babysitting” seems to be largely forgotten, or at the very least overshadowed by the innumerable other teen comedies. “Babysitting” does occasionally air on some cable networks, but disrespectfully so, as the editing job that I have seen is terrible; even minor cuts and unnecessary edits greatly subtract from the viewing experience and disrupt the flow of the picture.
Although “Adventures in Babysitting” is not exactly a profound piece of American cinema, and it will not likely earn a special edition release from the Criterion Collection, it provides solid entertainment and holds up quite well since its original release. I submit that it a masterpiece of its own distinct sub-genre. I remember that it originally received generally positive reviews and did quite well financially for its modest budget and movie type. The film proved to serve as a notable early credit for many unknowns and young actors at the time, including Shue, Rapp, Coogan, Miller, Whitford, Vincent D’Onofrio, Lolita Davidovich, and George Newbern.
“Adventures in Babysitting” deserves another viewing for those who may have forgotten about it, or a first screening for those unfamiliar with it. It is an accessible movie targeted at young viewers without being babyish, and not so mature that a wide audience could not enjoy it; it is the perfect choice to get a pizza and watch with friends on a Friday night. And it’s just one of those movies that, even after 25 years, never fails to make me smile.
Charles H. Wade, Ph.D., is a geographer by vocation and a writer/essayist by avocation. A lifelong cinephile, he currently lives in the Cincinnati area.