HBOMax Deep-Dives – Adventures in Babysitting

Thanks to WonderWoman 84, HBOMax has seen a dramatic rise in subscriptions. But once a viewer has seen DC’s latest offering, what else can they find on the app? Fortunately, HBOMax has a much greater selection of films and television programs than subscribers may realize. In this series of articles, Combat Republic will take a deep dive into the HBOMax film library and review some of the site’s more obscure selections.

Adventures in Babysitting (1987)

Movies featuring kids in the 1980s can easily be boxed into two very distinct categories. The first is teen sex romps, which run the gamut from the crass, sophomoric Porky’s to the smartly-written Risky Business. Even some of John Hughes’ early work, Sixteen Candles, in particular, can be placed into that category. As sexual mores have changed, these movies don’t really exist anymore. The second is the youthful adventure film. From the somber nostalgia of Stand By Me to the Steven Spielberg-esque Goonies and Back to the Future, most films in the era cleanly fit into one of those categories. Both mainly revolve around male characters coming of age. 1987’s Adventures in Babysitting takes elements of both genres and seamlessly blends them to create a fun film that, when viewed through 2021 eyes is both innocent and progressive.

Adventures in Babysitting is the story of Chris Parker (Elisabeth Shue), a seventeen-year-old girl growing up in the comfortable confines of the affluent Chicago suburb of Oak Park. All Chris wants is to have a nice quiet date with her boyfriend, Mike (the always smarmy Bradley Whitford). But when Mike cancels, Chris takes a babysitting job for some neighbors, the Andersons. Chris likes Sarah (Maia Brewton), their 8-year-old daughter whose obsession with Marvel’s Thor fits much better in 2021 than in 1987. Sarah’s older brother, Brad (Keith Coogan), plans to spend the night at his best friend’s but changes plans when he finds out his long-time unrequited crush is babysitting.

The Anderson parents are hosting a big soirée at Chicago’s famed diamond-shaped Associates Center building. You see, the Andersons are multi-millionaires. Mom is a lawyer, and Dad owns a skyscraper. The Andersons are raising their kids in a beautiful home safely in the suburbs, away from the scary city.

What starts as a quiet evening quickly devolves as Chris’s best friend, Brenda (Penelope Ann Miller), runs away from home and has second thoughts. She calls Chris and begs her friend to come pick her up from Union Station. Chris goes to leave but is blackmailed by the Anderson kids to go along for a trip into the city. Chris relents but has second-thoughts when Brad’s friend, Darryl (Anthony Rapp), a stereotypical teen pervert, horns his way in.

Chris’s car blows a tire on the highway. The kids are stranded with no money or ID until a helpful tow-truck driver with a hook-hand picks them up. However, when the driver finds that his wife is cheating on him, he decides now is the moment to literally murder her lover. After gunshots ring out, the kids take refuge in the back of a Cadillac in the middle of being stolen. The kids are taken to a chop shop where Joe Gipp, the reluctant thief (Calvin Levels), promises to bring them back home but is stopped by his bosses, who want to eliminate the kids. Chris leads them on a daring escape while Darryl steals a Playboy Magazine featuring a model that bears a striking resemblance to Chris. Unfortunately for the kids, the Playboy contains information on an illegal car order that can put the thieves away for a long time.

Chris guides the kids on a chase that bounces across Chicago’s Southside, putting them at odds with gang bangers and frat boys. It’s like the Odyssey for teens. The stakes are real, as the thieves will murder these kids if they’re caught. The film culminates with little Sarah dangling on the edge of the Associates Center’s diamond-shaped architecture before Chris, and her brother can pull her back to safety. The kids race home just in time to convince the Anderson’s that nothing out of the ordinary happened.

Chris Columbus, writer of Gremlins, viewed over one hundred scripts, trying to find the perfect one for his directorial debut. Elisabeth Shue, fresh off the cultural juggernaut known as The Karate Kid, carries the film as the lead. The rest of the movie is perfectly cast, and most of the players went on to have solid careers. In particular, Bradley Whitford made a career of playing characters like “So Cool Mike.” It’s not difficult to see a through-line from his work here all the way to his role as the villain in Get Out.

Filmed on a $7 million budget, the movie made $35 million at the box office before becoming a cable staple in the early 90s. What’s remarkable about the film is how well it’s aged and how truly progressive the movie is when dealing with its characters.

Chris Parker stands out as a female lead in what it’s essentially an action-comedy. While most films of the era treated their female character as prizes to be won, Chris is the driver of the story. She has innocence and vulnerability, but at the same time, she exudes a confidence that makes the character believable and relatable. All Chris really wants is to protect Brenda and the Andersons. Though she’s barely older than them, she’s clearly the group’s alpha. Chris isn’t afraid to put her own fears aside to keep them safe. Uttering the movie’s most famous line, “Don’t fuck with the babysitter!” while holding a switchblade to a gangbanger. Though much of the film is played for laughs, Shue’s portrayal helped set the tone for the strong female lead characters that drive much of today’s Young Adult fiction. There are many parallels between Chris Parker and Katniss Everdeen.

While the film isn’t afraid to play with Chris’ sexuality, something that might be a tad uncomfortable to modern audiences, it isn’t the driving force behind her character. The Playboy represents how most of the oggling male characters in the film might view her. But Chris is quick to never allow herself to be objectified. For a kid, she’s remarkably confident in her skin. The fact that Shue was 23 at the time helps provide this sense of maturity beyond the character’s years. The film isn’t a teen sex comedy, but it isn’t afraid to challenge the conventions established in those movies. Chris is nobody’s fool.

One of the most impressive feats of Adventures in Babysitting is its lack of defining its antagonists. The bad guys are rather nondescript thieves, but they really serve as analogs for the city itself. The film’s real antagonist is Chicago itself, or more how suburban kids are taught to view the city. Chris and the Anderson’s are children of White Flight. The white-picket-fence suburbs boomed in post-war America, leaving the cities to minorities who became like boogeymen to the kids growing up two generations removed. The film smartly doesn’t define the villains. It lets its target audience, suburban white kids, fill in the blanks. 

Chicago becomes like Oz. In reality, Oak Park is literally the next town over from Chicago. But in the film, these kids might as well be from a different planet. They know there’s danger around every corner, but their naivety keeps them moving. Like Dorthy in Oz, Chris learns that although Chicago is dangerous, it’s populated with good people willing to help.

The film’s treatment of race is interesting. Joe Gipp, the car thief with a heart of gold, is a tad cliche, but when dealing with sheltered kids, a character like him serves a purpose. Kids like the Andersons were taught to fear different, not from their parents but from society. When they first see Gipp, they’re terrified, but the thief quickly lets them know he doesn’t want to hurt them. Gipp has a small role in the film. But multiple occasions, he acts as a guardian angel, keeping them just out of the bad guy’s reach until the end when he literally helps Chris close the chapter on the villains.

Another way the film deals with race is the famous blues bar scene. On the run from the thieves, Chris and the kids hide inside of a blues bar and accidentally wind up on stage. They look into the crowd of unfamiliar faces, and for the first time in their lives, these kids are in the minority. They’re scared and fear the worst until the guitar player, played by famed-Blues player Albert Collins, immediately sense something is wrong. In his own unique way, he welcomes them into his world. “Don’t nobody leave this place without singing blues.” Though reluctant, the kids play along and are almost at once accepted by this sea of strangers. The blues bar doesn’t have to help these kids, but they do because it’s the right thing to do. When the thieves try to grab Chris after the performance, the guitar player makes the save, again by telling the crooks nobody leaves without performing. This time, the intention is to buy these kids time. 

The way the film deals with racial interplay is a bit simplistic and idealized. With its target audience in the late-80s, it’s a necessary message. The real-life Oak Park is one of the most racially and culturally diverse cities in America, a suburb filled with mansions and tenements. Using it makes sense in terms of the narrative, but in reality, these kids should have learned how to deal with people from a different race years earlier. But movies ask for suspension of disbelief.

In the end, Chris Parker and the Andersons learn that Chicago, while it can be a scary place, is a living, breathing organism. It can also be a wondrous place full of vibrant cultures, ideas, and people. Through their shared experience, the kids learn about acceptance and responsibility. 

While some of the dialogue and conventions have aged poorly, Adventures in Babysitting is a movie whose influence on the pop culture landscape has grown and deserves another viewing. 

****

J.D. Oliva is a novelist from Davis Junction, Illinois. Check his novels, Harvest Moon and The Books of Jericho on Amazon.

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