Rearview Mirror: “The Baby-Sitters Club”
Recently revived by Netflix, we revisit the original 1995 hangout movie for its 25th anniversary.
Welcome to Rearview Mirror, a monthly movie column in which I re-view and then re-review a movie I have already seen under the new (and improved?) critical lens of 2020. I’m so happy you’re here.
Following the success of The Outsiders (1983), The Goonies (1985) and Stand By Me (1986), someone, or maybe many someones, must have realized that there might be a market for a coming-of-age story about a group of pre-teen friends…who are girls. After My Girl (1991), it would have seemed like a no-brainer. Which is how, in the mid-nineties, we got The Baby-Sitters Club (1995) and Now and Then (1995). (Another movie adaptation of a book about an independent young girl, Harriet the Spy, premiered in 1996.)
That’s my theory, anyway, and it explains why BSC, which turns twenty-five today, exists in a sort of limbo between the somberness of the movies it followed and the heart-warming tone of the gal-power movies of its day, like A League Of Their Own (1992). The stakes in BSC aren’t high enough to justify much emotional catharsis, but there’s not quite enough humor to call it a comedy, either. As Vulture put it in a recent oral history, it’s a “sleepover classic,” the VHS you might insert before turning your attention over to hair-braiding, nail-painting, or cootie-catcher-making. The filmmakers were clearly aiming for a coming-of-age story; the narration at the end tells us as much. But what they ended up with, actually, is the pre-teen version of a hangout movie. The plot’s a little beside the point—I just want to eat Oreos in Claudia’s room.
Based on Ann M. Martin’s book series of the same name, The Baby-Sitters Club follows seven friends—bossy tomboy Kristy (Schuyler Fisk), artsy Claudia (Tricia Joe), shy Mary Anne (Rachel Leigh Cook), fashionable Stacey (Bre Blair) who has diabetes and it’s a huge deal, hippie Dawn (Larisa Oleynik), bookish Mallory (Stacy Linn Ramsower), and dancer Jessi (Zelda Harris)—who run a babysitting agency in the tiny town of Stoneybrook, Connecticut. When the movie starts, the club is already up and running, with a solid base of repeat clients and even an arch nemesis, bitchy rich girl Cokie Mason (Marla Sokoloff).
It’s summer, and the girls want a project that will keep them together and make them money for an answering machine (1995!), so Kristy comes up with one of her brilliant ideas: run a fun camp for the local kids in Mary Anne’s backyard. Against this backdrop, the girls learn lessons about jealousy, loyalty, and responsibility. Claudia attends summer school. The meatiest conflicts go to Stacey, who starts dating an older boy, and Kristy, whose absentee father suddenly turns up in town.
I feel like half the articles I write for this column are about unpacking age-gap relationships, but let’s get into it: Stacey is thirteen and Luca is seventeen. It’s pretty clear Luca isn’t a creep; he’s under the impression that Stacey is closer to his age, and when he finds out the truth, his first reaction is to return her, immediately, to her father. The lesson we’re supposed to learn is that Stacey should have been honest from the beginning. She should have told Luca about her diabetes before she felt faint on their hike, and she should have told him her age before he took her to an age-restricted “teen club” in the city. But in both cases, she was just trying to come across as mature and independent as possible, and at that age, what girl isn’t?
“That summer camp they put together reminds me of a scene at the end of Greta Gerwig’s Little Women adaptation, showing a future in which the sisters are having a birthday party on the lawn, a birthday party with cake and art and babies and music and theater. Only in the BSC version, Beth doesn’t die. Don’t you want to live in that?”
It’s all very forgivable and honorable and chaste until, after Luca saves the day by driving the girls to rescue Kristy, he tells Stacey he will be back next summer, when she is fourteen, and they kiss. And it’s not, like, a brief kiss. He really plants one on her. And the movie never acknowledges that when she is fourteen, he will be eighteen, and presumably heading off to college, and shouldn’t be sniffing around a girl who hasn’t started ninth grade yet? It’s an oddly pat resolution to a pretty tricky situation.
Kristy and her father Patrick, meanwhile, are in an even more dramatic story of semi-requited love. Kristy is head-over-heels for her dad, but like any good romance, they have to keep it secret. Patrick doesn’t want anyone knowing he’s back in Stonybrook, so while he lavishes his daughter with the attention she’s missed for years, he also puts her in the horrible situation of lying to her friends to keep a promise to her dad. Spending time with her dad even makes her forget to walk her little brother home after camp one afternoon; now she’s the one abandoning a kid.
Like Stacey, Kristy should have pushed for honesty on all sides. Like Stacey’s, her mistake is so understandable. After Patrick abruptly up and leaves—on Kristy’s birthday, no less—she learns who truly loves her. But here the movie serves up another attempt at a feel-good ending to what could have been a moment of real tension: Kristy tells us, in the final voiceover, that her father has started writing her regular letters. It’s always nice when deadbeat parents suddenly change their ways! (I’ll also add here, for any other now-adults who might revisit this childhood classic, that Kristy’s dad is an absolute snack. You’ve been warned.)
you know once this little miss was was a guest star in the 90s there was gonna be BIG TROUBLE pic.twitter.com/gibc2CkNcI
— Alison Williams (@therealalisonw) July 9, 2020
It’s a fantasy of childhood. Wouldn’t it be great to run a fun camp with your best friends, and ride your bike around town, and flirt with boys who always have good intentions, and make up with everyone you’ve ever fought with, and learn science through rhyming couplets? Don’t you wish your room looked like Claudia’s room, full of origami cranes and murals on the walls and mosaic furniture and patchwork denim? The world presented in The Baby-Sitters Club is colorful and bright. Everyone’s mixing patterns and making decorations out of up-cycled soda cans. When Mary Anne remarks that Kristy’s mother used to look “like Jo from Little Women,” I suddenly realized how much the core four babysitters matched up to the March sisters: Kristy is Jo, Mary Ann is Beth, Claudia is Amy, and Stacey is Meg. That summer camp they put together reminds me of a scene at the end of Greta Gerwig’s Little Women adaptation, showing a future in which the sisters are having a birthday party on the lawn, a birthday party with cake and art and babies and music and theater. Only in the BSC version, Beth doesn’t die. Don’t you want to live in that?
Let’s talk, for a second, about nostalgia. The Baby-Sitter’s Club doesn’t reference any songs or movies; they never talk about who the president is. It’s identifiably mid-nineties in aesthetic, but not much else. It could, with only minor tweaks, take place almost anytime, including now. The recent Netflix adaptation of the book series spends much of its pilot explaining why kids in 2020 would hand out fliers or run their business through a landline. The explanations work; the series is cute. But there’s a larger cultural shift the series doesn’t address: I just don’t think the well-to-do parents of Stoneybrook would let their kids be supervised by a twelve-year-old. In fact, in 2020, a parent coming home late at night might hire a babysitter to watch their twelve-year-old. It’s the only issue I found with the new series, and the thing that shocked me most upon revisiting the movie. These are middle school children spending most of their time…totally unsupervised. It’s kind of unfathomable. Sure, I babysat a bit when I was thirteen. But the family I sat for was on my block, and I had a cell phone.
“It seems to me that 1995 was perhaps the last time a group of upper middle class girls would be able to meet three times a week at a friend’s house, and put together a summer camp on a few weeks’ notice, and actually have people sign up.”
The other sort of unbelievable aspect is that the girls in the club, and the kids they watch over, would be so free after school or during the summer. Wealthy suburban parents these days fill their kids’ schedules with sports and arts classes and clubs of the not-babysitting kind. I’m not any kind of anthropologist, but it seems to me that 1995 was perhaps the last time a group of upper middle class girls would be able to meet three times a week at a friend’s house, and put together a summer camp on a few weeks’ notice, and actually have people sign up. That kind of thing nowadays, I just don’t buy.
To bring it back to nostalgia, and to the legacy of The Goonies, maybe that’s part of the appeal of another Netflix show, Stranger Things. The boys have all this time to play Dungeons & Dragons, and then to fight supernatural demons, and it never seems to interfere with soccer practice or French lessons. The ’80s and ’90s, or at least, the ’80s and ’90s as depicted on film, put friendship at the center of childhood, not preparation for adulthood. The BSC, then, is a hangout movie about the fun of hanging out.
If this were any other summer, I might advise you to skip the re-watch and go hang out, for real, with your friends. Play outside. Make some memories you can be nostalgic for later. But you can’t. Camp is cancelled. Sleepovers are cancelled. Summer ended before it began; school is at home and home is now school. So if you don’t have anything else to do for an afternoon, put on The Baby-Sitters Club and let yourself live, for ninety minutes, in the cheerful, anodyne world of Stoneybrook, and don’t worry about whether the lessons are any good, or the movie is any good, or the pandemic will ever end. Allow yourself to decide that, just for now, none of that matters. All that matters is that there’s no way Logan Bruno would go to the Smashing Pumpkins concert without Mary Anne. He just would never. FL