My home state of Pennsylvania is not featured terribly often as the setting for Hollywood films. However quaint, hick-ish, and boondocky the rest of the state may be, I hold much love for Philadelphia and the surrounding suburbs. Frankly, the rest of the state can go fuck itself with a rusty pair of toenail clippers.
Anyway, while Pennsylvania may not provide the most sought-after areas for exciting, hundred million dollar films, it gives filmmakers a humble, hometown feel that works well in certain contexts.
Set in Madison, Pennsylvania in the summer of 1972, My Girl is a film about growing up and coming to terms with death. Vada Sultenfuss is an atypical 11 year old girl. Her only friend is an allergic-to-everything geek named Thomas and her father, Harry, is a socially inept funeral director and widower.
Because the Sultenfuss residence doubles as a funeral parlor, Vada is faced with death and its mysteries from a very young age. On top of the funeral stuff, Vada is also dealing with the guilt of her mother’s death during her childbirth.
If all of those struggles weren’t enough for the poor girl, Shelley DeVoto comes into her life as her father’s new make-up artist for the dead. As Harry and Shelley’s relationship blossoms, Vada grows tired of her and the jealousy of their relationship and the fact that her long-time teacher infatuation, Mr. Bixler, is now engaged drives her to a near mental breakdown.
Things just seem to keep getting worse for little Vada as the film continues. Vada experiences her first period and can’t find the words to explain the situation to Harry. Also, after losing her prized mood ring during a swarming bee attack, Thomas returns to the scene to find it for her. As he scours the ground for his best friend’s ring, he is again attacked by the bees and dies from his allergy to their stings.
The emotional climax comes when Vada is pleading with everyone at Thomas’ funeral to put his glasses on him because “he can’t see without his glasses.” It’s one of the most heart-wrenching scenes in movie history and still makes me a little misty-eyed when I catch the film on cable TV. Shelley also reaches her boiling point and confronts Harry for being obsessed with death. She chastises him for ignoring the living, especially his own daughter.
In the midst of Vada’s tragic guilt and gloom, Harry finally explains to her that her mother’s death was in no way her fault. Thomas’ death turns out to be an important mending tool for the relationship between father and daughter and, while still a jarring loss for a young girl, cements the fact that she now has the support system of her father and Shelley. There is still room for hope in her life.
After meeting a new friend at the end of the film, Vada discovers that all of the pain of life is only temporary and that every day is a new beginning. It turns out that life is more than just a way of dealing with the reality of death. Isn’t it?