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‘My Girl’ (PG)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 27, 1991

Vada, the precocious 11-year-old heroine of "My Girl," has a lot to worry about. There's the chicken bone lodged in her throat, the abnormal development of her breasts, and the disturbing symptoms of prostate cancer. Nearly every day there's some alarming new development; she's a virtual Merck Manual of medical minutiae, and nearly every day, she's off to the doctor's office to confirm her certain, impending death. The doctor, of course, can find nothing wrong, but Vada is unconvinced. "I'm sorry," she says, "but I'll have to get a second opinion."

The bill of health for the movie is not so clean. "My Girl" is a wildly uneven little movie, at times pleasingly sweet, at others perplexingly miscalculated. It's a modest, likable piece of work, with a handful of charming, low-key performances, particularly from newcomer Anna Chlumsky, who plays Vada, and the world's littlest star, Macaulay Culkin, who plays her best friend, Thomas. It's also a picture with something on its mind; it's far from shallow.

Set in a small Pennsylvania town, the picture focuses on a cataclysmic summer in 1972 when the already shaky ground of Vada's life turns into quicksand. Vada is a bright but haunted child; at dinner, she sprawls on the floor by the kitchen table, unable to eat. Perhaps it's the presence of so many corpses that provokes her ceaseless hypochondria. Her father, Harry Sultenfuss (Dan Aykroyd), is a softhearted, successful mortician. Death is a constant reality in the Sultenfuss home, and not just because recently deceased neighbors are wheeled daily into Harry's basement.

The ghost of Harry's wife, who died giving birth to Vada, hangs in the minds of both survivors. As a result, Harry has withdrawn into an emotional cocoon, dedicating himself more to the dead than to the living, his daughter included. For Vada, there's a lingering sense of guilt that she was responsible for her mother's death. Both Vada and her father live with their burdens in silence, pretending that nothing is wrong, that is until an outsider -- a free-spirited makeup artist named Shelly (Jamie Lee Curtis) -- forces them out of their emotional closets.

Screenwriter Laurice Elehwany and director Howard Zieff attempt a delicate balance that doesn't quite work. The movie is upbeat but with a palpable streak of melancholy; it's a rare item -- a romantic comedy about loss -- and there's a push-me, pull-you quality to the emotional currents.

The most engaging scenes take place between Chlumsky and Culkin, who may be the season's most lovable romantic couple, but the relationship between the two characters never quite settles into a satisfying groove. Partly this is a result of the natural tension between boys and girls at that age; lovey-dovey stuff is sorta, well, icky. But also it may be that our attention is too often diverted from this pair to the blossoming affection between Harry and Shelly, who slowly draws the widower out of his low-level mourning and back into life.

The movie has the easygoing rhythm of its small-town milieu, and among its prime virtues is the natural way in which the comedy springs from the relationships between the characters. The actors flourish in this unforced ambiance. Aykroyd, whose stature as a comic star has fallen sharply, seems to have found his real niche as a dramatic actor. He's marvelous as the cloddish, out-of-it Harry, who in his hands becomes an almost irresistible lunk.

Zieff has us see Harry through Shelly's eyes, which makes him all the more attractive. And it's the uninhibited receptivity in Curtis's performance that makes this odd coupling work. Curtis gives "My Girl" a soulful dose of worldly experience. Shelly has been knocked around a bit; she doesn't have much to call her own except the camper she lives in. But the aura of womanly resilience she projects has a medicinal effect on both Harry and Vada. Life-givers like this can be suffocating in the movies, but Curtis's touch is so subtle that we hardly notice that our emotions are being massaged.

The movie's real stars, though, are the kids. As Thomas, Culkin proves that the success of "Home Alone" was hardly a fluke. The character he plays here couldn't possibly be more different; he's painfully shy and a bit of a mama's boy, but this young performer is as convincing as a bespectacled scaredy-cat here as he was as the resourceful hellion in "Home Alone." This is a real actor at work, and a true delight.

The key to the success of Culkin's performance is that we never catch him acting. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for Chlumsky. She's a darling, but though this is her first movie role, she already seems like a practiced trouper. Granted, she has to carry more of the movie's dramatic baggage than Culkin, but all too often she comes across as a standard-issue movie kid.

The movie has more serious problems, though. Watching it, you can't quite figure out what the movie's audience is supposed to be. For parents and kids hoping for a Macaulay Culkin movie, a rude shock awaits. Also, the movie's themes may be too sophisticated for younger audiences; it deals, after all, with death and recovery. And yet, the treatment of these issues may be too pat for adults. It's an entertaining, often winning, movie, but you can't help but feel that the filmmakers never settled on what sort of movie they wanted to make.

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