The Baby-Sitters Club
At the start of 1996, whenever I turned on TV, I seemed to catch that long, long trailer for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation series Naked. This is the show that promised to explore all explosive and troubled areas of the male psyche: a topic I find myself thinking about a great deal, and which has a particular affect on the way I watch certain films. Interesting men and their interesting problems keep popping up in odd places and – even if they are not the central characters in these films – they turn out to be the most memorable. Take, for example, The Baby-Sitters Club.
The Baby-Sitters Club is a modest, pre-teen film that I enjoy and appreciate. It is rather like an extended, girls-only episode of the television show Degrassi High (1989-1991): an unassuming chronicle of the daily experiences of a gang of twelve-year-olds. Director Melanie Mayron, who previously acted in and handled some episodes of the TV series thirtysomething, makes her feature debut here. (1)
Offering a whimsical collection of storylines threaded around the theme of friendship and its vicissitudes – while illustrating the inevitable dilemmas of dating, shyness and passing exams – The Baby-Sitters Club is an American populist movie in a minor key.
Like many higher-energy teen movies in the vein of The Wild Life (Art Linson, 1984), The Baby-Sitters Club is populist in the sense that it celebrates the differences between people – the merry diversity in any community, however small. Accordingly, Mayron presents the usual cross-section of kids of different colours and social classes.
Better still are the even finer distinctions and calibrations of personal style captured here: a serious girl and a frivolous one; an optimist and a pessimist; a forgetful one and a pedantic one. All these life-modes are rendered with equal value: every one is worth its own little slice of the narrative. The movie is episodic, very even in tone, rather like a television show in that way; it is the type of film that is more likely to find its fans on video rather than on the big screen. But it is pleasurable.
So where is the dark, troubled man in The Baby-Sitters Club? He is not twelve years old, like the girls, and he doesn’t enter the picture straight away – but once he does, he is not easily forgotten. This man is the hitherto absent father of young Kristy (Schuyler Fisk), the central female character. Kristy’s mother, Elizabeth (Brooke Adams), has remarried, many years back, to a solid, stable, benevolent guy, Watson Brewer (Bruce Davison). But Dad (or Patrick) comes to town and contacts Kristy. Played by Peter Horton, another brooding ex-star from thirtysomething, Patrick embroils Kristy in a terrible pact of secrecy – a secret that causes a catastrophe in her Club of friends.
Dad wants to get to know his daughter, and Kristy responds well, referring (in voice-over) to the preciousness of these moments with him, of which she has been deprived for most of her life. There is a father/daughter romance element here, a charge reminiscent of another modest but fascinating film, Alfonso Cuarón’s A Little Princess (1995). But there’s also a catch: the meetings between Kristy and her Dad have to be clandestine, as he does not want his ex-wife to know he is in town.
There are various further points in this plot, but the important thing is that it all leads to a terrible night at a fairground where Dad does not show up for his appointment-date with Kristy – leaving her to trundle along the road, crying in the rain, until her friends and folks save her. In the aftermath of this letdown, Kristy is angry; she calls her Dad a bum, a loser and a no-hoper.
While Elizabeth sympathises, she also reminds Kristy of Patrick’s immense charm, of the fun and laughter he creates – those very qualities that made Elizabeth marry him in the first place. Patrick is a loser, to be certain, but also a dreamer – and his dreams, idealism, lightness and sublimity are exactly what he has passed on to his daughter.
This is an intriguing male figure: the loser-dreamer; the irresponsible guy whom nobody can depend on, but to whom everyone loses their heart. He is the nomad who wanders in and out of home, community and family relations. Patrick is unmistakably a figure of pathos: the man who can’t ever get it together, but is endlessly forgiven for the love he generates and inspires, for his essential warmth. That said, there is definitely some moral condemnation of Patrick in The Baby-Sitters Club – some, but really not very much.
I am fascinated by the many varieties of male pathos in movies; stories in which men are rather emotionally excessive in one register or another (sometimes even violently so), but lovable somehow – precisely because of that excess. In some tales, you are sucked into the maudlin variation of male pathos: stories about idealistic, grand old guys left behind by history or shunned by society. A very fruity variation on this last scenario can be found in Mel Gibson’s debut directorial, The Man Without a Face (1993).
In fact, while just about every scenario that tries to milk male pathos in these heavy-handed ways tends to make me squirm, I have to admit that I remain fascinated and enthralled by them.
1. 2018 Postscript: Melanie Mayron has chalked
up a remarkable and extensive list of TV directing credits (over 50 are listed
on IMDb) since the mid 1990s on series including GLOW, Pretty Little Liars, In Therapy, Dawson’s Creek and the telemovie Mean Girls 2 (2011). Her subsequent feature films are Slap Her, She’s French! (2002), Zeyda and the Hitman (2004) and Snapshots (2018). She has also continued
her acting career in TV series including Jane
the Virgin (where she also works as a director) and Jamie Babbit’s feature Breaking the Girls (2012).
© Adrian Martin February 1996