My first screen crushes were Linda Hamilton’s studly Sarah Connor in Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Elizabeth Shue’s feisty Chris Parker in Adventures in Babysitting, polar opposite composites of strong yet emotionally complex women who both actively protect children in distress. At the tender age of ten, I remember being in awe of their impressive durability, their resolve to keep moving forward through unpredictable landscapes despite escalating conflict and hopelessness. Each relied on brains and improvisation more than charm or beauty, embracing the chaos around them in order to survive it. A little personal history: I experienced Adventures in Babysitting on VHS around the time T-2 was shredding my synapses on the big screen in 1991, hence the palpable character dichotomy.
Sitting down with Adventures in Babysitting again some two decades later, it’s wonderful to report that the film is just as effortlessly funny, breakneck, and smart as I remember. The second Chris jumps into frame lip-synching “Then He Kissed Me” by The Crystals in the classic opening montage, director Chris Columbus’s debut immediately establishes itself as an indelibly playful and genuine coming-of-age story. Wearing only a large T-shirt, Chris prances around her suburban bedroom using the bedpost as a microphone and drapes as a wedding veil, serenading her boyfriend Mike’s (Bradley Whitford) portrait as if the two were entwined in a classic fairy-tale romance. The entire scene seems like a more innocent female riff on that famous Risky Business dance number, but Shue’s graceful movement and sincere poses elevate it beyond pastiche. When Mike finally arrives for their date, the music suddenly stops and Chris looks into the mirror and says, “Tonight is going to be the best night of your life.” Anticipation is everything for a teenager madly in love, but Adventures in Babysitting will spend the duration showing just how futile those extreme feelings can be.
Seconds later, Mike cancels their anniversary dinner and Chris’s pre-planned night of love is destroyed in one fell swoop. The transition sequence that follows proves why Adventures in Babysitting is not just another teenage comedy, but a witty and potent look at the way life experience promotes growth and resiliency in young people. As Chris sits dejected in her bedroom all dressed up and nowhere to go, she feverishly discuss Mike’s cancellation with her best friend Brenda (Penelope Ann Miller) as if it were a tragic event, dissecting each word and facial expression down to their core. “He’s the best thing that ever happened to me,” Chris says rather pathetically. Brenda’s smartass retort is brilliant and wise: “He’s the only thing that’s ever happened to you.” Adventures in Babysitting not only captures the heightened perspective of teenage disappointment; it cuts that very melodrama down to size and forces the characters to consider their own overreactions.
Fittingly, Chris’s head-in-the-clouds fantasy is replaced by a typical teenage nightmare: babysitting the neighbor’s kids. “I’m too old to baby-sit,” Chris whines, echoing basically every cinematic teenage girl before her. But the job opportunity represents a potential distraction for a forlorn character simply trying to survive an emotionally crippling night. The children in question are teenage Brad (Keith Coogan), who fawns after Chris in much the same way she does Mike, and pre-teen Sarah (Maia Brewton), whose obsession with the superhero Thor becomes just one of the many instances where perception and reality prove to be narrative bedfellows.
Chris’s plans get turned on their ear once again when Brenda calls from a downtown Chicago bus station having finally acted on her promise of running away from home. She’s trapped in an urban prison where the inmates are homeless people, a Travis Bickle knockoff sporting a revolver, and various other city slickers who she assumes are going to kill her. So Chris, along with Sarah, Brad, and Brad’s conniving best friend Daryl (Anthony Rapp), a horny lad with a penchant for Playboy magazines, make their way from the “safe” confines of suburbia to the dangerous big city, a seemingly simple journey that turns complicated fast. From here, Adventures in Babysitting becomes a full-blown chase film, with Chris and her brood maneuvering the city by all means necessary in order to survive the night. Their kinetic experiences with various urban characters begin to stack up and overlap, beginning with a crazy tow-truck driver sporting a hook for a hand, then pirouetting to include a ring of car thieves, the denizens of a smoky Blues bar, and dueling gangs aboard a cramped subway scene straight out of Walter Hill’s The Warriors.
Part of what makes Adventures in Babysitting such a lasting entertainment is the way its fleet-footed narrative stays grounded even when while dabbling in the fantastical and absurd. The best example comes when Chris, Brad, Sarah and Daryl accidentally interrupt a performance by the great Blues musician Albert Collins inside the aforementioned bar. “Nobody leaves here without singing the blues,” Collins grumbles, leading to one of those wonderfully strange and intoxicating musical numbers that not only serves the plot but connects the characters involved on a deeper level. In a sense, that’s what every vignette in Adventures in Babysitting achieves: allowing these naïve characters of all ages to gain life experience by witnessing the destruction of stereotypes and facades about the city folk they meet. While Chris and her suburban footprint are referenced multiple times throughout for comedic effect (mentions of The Brady Bunch and shopping malls being the most prolific examples), characters like the car thief Joe Gipp (Calvin Lewis) are also forced to re-examine their own preconceptions about the middle class.
Even more amazing is how Chris and company embrace these new experiences with minimal resistance. Sure, there’s initial hesitation, but ultimately these white kids from suburbia cohere with the volatile cityscape seamlessly, giving in to the wonderful momentum that each diverse sequence affords. While the blue-collar perspective is celebrated as nuanced and human during these moments, upper class arrogance and promiscuity are skewered, most notably in the sequence where Chris confronts the sleazy Mike who’s eating dinner with another woman inside the very posh French restaurant they were supposed to dine at together. The establishment’s snooty ambience is permanently interrupted by their awkward confrontation, with Brad and Daryl chivalrously defending Chris’s honor by standing up to Mike’s smarminess.
Aside from its propulsive narrative and thematic intricacies, Adventures in Babysitting has great taste in music. Junior Walker, Southside Johnny and the Jukes, Percy Sledge, Iggy Pop, and Albert Collins provide excellent accompaniments to the constantly moving plotline. But it’s Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home to Me” that provides the necessary melancholy that allows the ending of Adventures in Babysitting to take on a specific resonance rare for the genre. With Cooke’s masterpiece playing in the background, Chris, Brad, Sarah and Daryl reflect on the night’s mad-hatter qualities, expressing an honest appreciation and tenderness for the memories they’ve just created together. Amazingly, it’s Daryl who sums it up best: “Thank you Chris for giving me the best night of my life, so far.” This hopefulness is priceless, and it’s indicative of a great genre film that posits a heightened experience like one’s first crush (and broken heart) as the beginning of something grand, and not the end of something dramatic.