Film Reviews

Pollyanna for the '90s

With 125 million well-thumbed copies in circulation, the Baby-sitters Club books are a trusted series whose stories of seven adolescent girls and their tidy suburban adventures have a wide, devoted following.

The carefully inspiring, mildly instructive formula of the books has been preserved in the baby-sitters' first foray on to the big screen. During the opening credits of The Baby-sitters Club, we hear adults leaving messages on the baby-sitters' answering machine -- grownups begging for help. These days, 13-year-old girls are going to have problems with boys, mean girls, school and the special challenges of non-nuclear families. They would all love to be needed and competent, as are the baby-sitters. These junior high issues are delicately addressed in the Melanie Mayron-directed film.

Devoted Baby-sitters Club fans might find specific reason to complain about the actresses chosen for their favorite characters -- living up to reader expectations is always a problem when casting beloved literary figures. Still, the film shouldn't disappoint fans of the books. It's watchable and can even be entertaining for adults roped in to accompanying young Baby-sitters Club fans to the movie. (At least the first time they're forced to sit through it.)

The seven baby-sitters live in Stoneybrook, a bland and comfortable hamlet similar to the Cleaver family's hometown of Mayfield. The baby-sitters' world has no rough edges, and only one reference puts the baby-sitters in the contemporary world -- Smashing Pumpkins tickets are available, and coveted, in Stoneybrook. Not that the baby-sitters use their hard-earned money to pay for concert tickets, or clothes, or the horses they ride; our pubescent entrepreneurs aren't in it for the money. Mom and dad -- or mom and stepdad -- take care of their worldly needs. So why do they spend all their spare time together and work nights?

Fans of the books already know; novelty is not part of the baby-sitters' draw. Right up front, we get the baby-sitters' story in a voice-over from club president Kristy (Schuyler Fisk), who declares, "We're more than just a club; we're friends, best friends. Nothing could ever change that."

But, as anyone can guess, plot developments always threaten the cozy club. In the movie, of course, the girls will have a falling out, make up and live in harmony until the next Baby-sitters Club installment. A plain package for this plot might have satisfied fans, yet Mayron (best known for her acting roles in Car Wash, Sticky Fingers and thirtysomething) seems to have felt a larger obligation to the little girls who'll see this movie. She shows her strength by delivering exactly what the Ann M. Martin book series offers.

The club's archenemy, prissy Cokie (Marla Sokoloff), and her hench-bitches Bebe (Ashlee Turner) and Grace (Natanya Ross), mock the baby-sitters as goody two-shoes. But the baby-sitters go right on being goody two-shoes -- there are no quick, contrived, "they're really cool" moments with the baby-sitters cursing or smoking or making sexual entendre. They maintain their integrity.

Because these kids are aware of Smashing Pumpkins we can assume they've seen AIDS and "Just Say No" PSAs on television -- we have, too, and so have all the kids who read the Baby-sitters Club books. Sex and drugs are confusing teenage issues, but they don't supersede garden-variety coming of age trauma. "Crossing the bridge from being a kid to being a grownup is what this film's about, when you're not quite there but you aren't little anymore," says Mayron. "It's a universal story about friendship and love that is powerful and emotional and never dated." I'll add that it's only a powerful and emotional story if you're of a certain bent and age group, just so no one gets the idea The Baby-sitters Club movie is another To Kill a Mockingbird.

Kristy's particular problem in the movie is the return of her real dad, Patrick (Peter Horton of the The Horseplayer, thirtysomething). She promises not to tell mom, or anyone, and she and her formerly estranged father spend time playing ball and eating peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches on lovely covered bridges. The eternal tomboy, Kristy even dons a dress he's given her. The dress-wearing, and her long absences from the baby-sitters' project, a summer day camp, arouse suspicion and alienate Kristy from her friends. Lying to her mom and stepdad makes her miserable at home, too.

Bruce Davison portrays stepdad Martin with the discreet tenderness that marks the entire film. Martin doesn't know for sure why Kristy is so miserable, but he doesn't pry or nag. As did Davison's character in Longtime Companion, Martin offers solace and support by being a respectful, loving presence and not addressing the details.

The Baby-sitters Club has the same respectful, loving tone. The baby-sitters' unique problems -- one lies about her age and gets involved with a 17-year-old boy, another is flunking summer school science class -- are not important. The appeal of the movie is that it shows ordinary girls (albeit with fabulous wardrobes and plenty of pocket money) muddling through and coming out okay. Cliche, yes; hokey, yes; but also a tried-and-true formula that can be pulled off by any filmmaker willing to commit to straightforward sentiment. The success of the book series proves that Pollyanna stories do have an audience in the '90s, and Mayron is confident enough to make a movie with a simple story.

The Baby-sitters Club.
Directed by Melanie Mayron. With Ellen Burstyn, Bruce Davison, Peter Horton and Schuyler Fisk.

Rated PG.
92 minutes.

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Edith Sorenson