Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead Still Has Life
By Mandi Bierly
Christina Applegate gets a different kind of teen makeover in the surprisingly inspirational cult comedy.
We all know makeover movies are a genre unto themselves, and when they involve a young woman, they tend to revolve around a physical transformation (She’s All That, Never Been Kissed, Mean Girls). That’s not the case, however, with 1991’s Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead, which takes already fashionable and popular 17-year-old Sue Ellen (Christina Applegate) from aimless high school grad to focused career woman over the course of one crazy summer.
Soon after Sue Ellen’s mother jets off to Australia for a two-month vacation, she and her four younger siblings find themselves home alone when the old lady hired to babysit them dies in her sleep. Rather than risk ruining their summers with their mom’s early return, the kids anonymously drop the body off at the mortuary and vow to take care of themselves. The problem? All the money their mother left for them is gone now, too. Since Sue Ellen can’t stomach working the grill at the local Clown Dog, she fakes a résumé for a receptionist job — too well, it turns out. Instead, she’s hired to be the executive administrative assistant to Rose (Joanna Cassidy), the SVP of Operations at uniform-manufacturer General Apparel West and the reason you can still hear people saying, “I’m right on top of that, Rose!” in offices today.
Certain elements of the story are understandably dated: the computer and fax machine that an overwhelmed Sue Ellen fights with; the sight of her smoking at her desk; the colorful, highly-accessorized uniforms she designs to save the company (to be clear, a nurse in pink spandex was never a good idea). But the heart of the empowering story still beats true. Sue Ellen, as played by an 18-year-old Applegate already perfecting her craft on Married… With Children, may not feel ready to shoulder this much responsibility but she is smart enough to pull it off. That fact was important to writers Neil Landau and Tara Ison, who took some PG-13 inspiration from the R-rated ‘80s teen classic Risky Business. “What if the parents went out of town and instead of the kids destroying everything, they got their s**t together?” Landau has said of their original conceit. (He also confessed that they were initially embarrassed by the movie’s title, which had been changed from The Real World to avoid confusion with the MTV reality show about to debut. Then they realized it was, to say the very least, memorable.)
While Sue Ellen grows into the woman mentor Rose already believes she is — and shuts down unwanted advances from an older male colleague (something else the teen shouldn’t have to deal with at that age, or ever) — she also earns the respect of her siblings at home. And it’s there that Keith Coogan’s scene-stealing Kenny undergoes his own epic evolution from apathetic stoner to underappreciated homemaker, a journey deftly handled by director Stephen Herek, fresh off Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Watching Kenny and Sue Ellen argue like an old married couple when she forgot to call and say she’ll be working late is the film’s biggest laugh.
To up the stakes of Sue Ellen’s charade, she also gets a love interest, Clown Dog delivery boy Bryan (Josh Charles, who’d just proven himself swoon-worthy in Dead Poets Society). As fate would have it, he’s the little brother of her work nemesis, Carolyn (Jayne Brook), who plots to get Sue Ellen sacked and enlists a pre-X-Files David Duchvony in a bit role to aid her efforts.
Bryan is the reminder of what Sue Ellen’s summer should be like at 17 — going on a date to watch the grunion run and admitting to someone that you have no idea if what you love now is what you’d want to do for the rest of your life. The secret is not to let that fear immobilize you. Just like the writers scripting this coming-of-age movie’s plot, you make a bold decision and run with it.