Ironically, I first watched this movie (on VHS) when I myself was young enough to have a babysitter. I was just about 10 years old at the time, but having already blown through its early ‘90s contemporaries (Father of the Bride, My Girl and The Rockateer), this film—now 30 years old—was next in my queue of Blockbuster rentals, a real #tbt.
Here’s My Honest Review of ‘Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead’ (30 Years Too Late)
A brief synopsis in case you’re unfamiliar: Sue Ellen Crandell (Christina Applegate) is a 17-year-old girl about to embark on a summer free from parental supervision—her mom is Australia-bound with her fiancé, leaving Swell (her nickname) and her four younger siblings home alone. (It’s not lost on me that Kevin McCallister was also left to fend for himself this very same year.) But that’s just it: She won’t be on her own. Her mom hired an elderly babysitter…one who kicks the bucket after about two movie minutes on the job. Short on cash and determined to not call mom and protect her independence this summer, Sue Ellen is forced to step up and grow up (i.e. lie about her age and resumé to score a sweet job in the fashion industry and put food on the table for the kids).
As an impressionable career-minded middle schooler, I was enthralled. I also couldn’t help but cross-check the film with my own fantastical definition of what it was like to be a grown-up—fancy job, romance and kids all included.
In fact, this may have been the film’s goal. Roger Ebert wrote at the time, “[This film] is a consumerist, escapist fantasy for teenage girls [where Christina Applegate as a 17-year-old] gets to act out experiences that most girls her age only dream about.”
But that’s just it: 30 years—and, not kidding, about 47 subsequent viewings—later, Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead still holds up. Silly ‘90s tropes aside (like Sue Ellen swindling her way into an office job and the bizarre premise that any mother could really go off the grid for multiple months with five kids), what I find compelling even on this 48th (or something) watch, is Swell’s resourcefulness and confidence, not to mention her gumption as she takes charge of her own fate.
Disclaimer: Yes, my affection for the film—which has a 35 percent Rotten Tomatoes rating, ouch—may be rooted in nostalgia and a love of cool-girl Christina Applegate, who’s still cool btw (hello, Dead to Me). But there’s a reason I still frequently say or at least think, “I’m right on top of that, Rose.” Hear me out.
1. It’s Pretty Damn Awesome That Sue Ellen Dresses For The Job She Wants…and Gets It.
Suspension of disbelief is required (like the idea that fudging a resumé and a 15-second conversation with an executive, the bulk of which is spent mocking a receptionist, could land you a big deal job). But Swell does have an eye for fashion. That scene where she shops her mom’s closet, pulls together several killer ensembles, then breezes in for an interview and gets the job? That’s basically porn for anyone wide-eyed and optimistic about the potential of a job in their dream career. And let’s not forget that her ahead-of-her-time talent actually helps save the brand in the end. She may not have been able to send a fax or handle the goddamn QED Report, but perhaps she was deserving of the job in the end. (That scene where Swell has to let go of Franklin, the head designer, and then is struck with boundless inspiration as wardrobe rack after wardrobe rack whizzes past? Chills.)
2. She Also Demonstrates The Power Of Supportive Female Relationships At Work.
Damn you, Carolyn (played by Jayne Brook). If there’s one thing this film sets out to prove: It never works out when women go against one of their own. Yes, David Duchovny, er, Bruce was an accomplice, but Carolyn was the ringleader angling for Sue Ellen’s demise. Sure, she had her reasons. Ahem, Sue Ellen scammed her way to the top and usurped Carolyn out of a job she may or may not have earned, but that was accidental. (She was applying for the receptionist job, remember?) Also, Carolyn was rude from the start. On the other hand, you had Cathy (Kimmy Robertson), who could decode the QED Report in her sleep, and was more than happy to pitch in and help Swell. Was she being taken advantage of? Possibly. (That part isn’t OK.) But, on some level, she was acting as a work wife, eager to assist a friend in need for the good of the team.
3. Speaking Of Powerful Female Relationships, There’s Sue Ellen’s Boss.
Joanna Cassidy, the woman behind the Rose of the aforementioned “I’m right on top of that, Rose,” demonstrated a boss/subordinate dynamic we can all aspire to have: Life is better when we have each other’s backs. (Is that not the meaning of that signature line?)
4. But Also: Stay Far, Far Away From “gus” At The Office.
Was Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead commenting on #MeToo before there was #MeToo? Gus (played by John Getz) couldn’t have come on stronger. He’s also representative of every male colleague who has ebbed a little too close (or downright crossed a line) when it comes to workplace sexual harassment. Sue Ellen, who, as a reminder, is just 17, handles Gus’s aggressive advances with ease in a PG-13 plot. She even shoots him in the crotch with a squirt gun right before the film’s climax. Brava.
5. Finally, There’s The Takeaway That You Can Have It All…with Stellar Help.
It was the stuff magazine coverlines in the ‘90s were made of: The impossible mandate that women can have it all. Sue Ellen tries…but only succeeds at work, at home and in love (shout-out to Josh Charles, who courts Swell at the grunion run) with the help of all four siblings and their friends. A makeover movie? Sure, this film could be pegged as that. But my favorite part isn’t when Sue Ellen shops her mom’s closet. Instead, it’s when every single person pitches in to renovate their house and help Swell succeed (and, oops, pay back the petty cash). Everything comes crashing down at the end, of course, but when Swell’s mom returns, her reaction is yet another line to remember: “I’ll be damned,” a testament to what her team of a family has accomplished. She wasn’t wrong.