"Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead" a Worthwhile Comedy Remake with Work from Costume Designer Ceci
April 13, 2024

Written by Andrew Lawrence, The Guardian

Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead is the ultimate ode to the latchkey generation. To watch the 1991 film now is to be reminded of a simpler time when parents barely checked in, house parties were all the rage and Christina Applegate was the ideal girl nextdoor. Given its place in the grand tradition of coming-of-age classics, somewhere between Tom Hanks’s Big and Jennifer Garner’s 13 Going on 30, it was only a matter of time before Hollywood mulled a remake of Applegate’s celluloid breakout. Any update would have to relate to a new generation that, in many ways, has had to grow up even faster than their predecessors.

The reboot, which comes courtesy of Paramount streamer BET+, doesn’t just understand this assignment; it nails it. The new film echoes the wit and charm of the original with a major twist: now the black comedy focuses on a Black family in southern California. Other details from the first film are shuffled around and some supplemental characters axed. But for the most part writer Chuck Hayward is faithful to the source material written by Neil Landau and Tara Ison – both of whom receive story bylines and serve as executive producers alongside Tyra Banks. Their film, helmed by Wade Allain-Marcus in his studio directorial debut, is a model for how future reboots can be faithfully done.

In this second draft, it’s Tanya Crandell – a college-bound 17-year-old played earnestly by Bel Air’s Simone Joy Jones – who sees her Spanish holiday plans torpedoed when her widowed mother (the off-color standup comic Patricia “Ms Pat” Williams) suffers a nervous breakdown at the office and seizes Tanya’s vacation funds to float a medically mandated yoga getaway in Thailand. Nonagenarian Ms Sturak (Oscar nominee June Squibb) lands the job of watching Tanya and her siblings: Kenny, the burnout (Danielle T Hansley Jr); Melissa, the goth (Ayaamii Sledge); and Zack, the naïf (Carter Young). But it isn’t long before Ms Sturak drops the sweet granny act and reverts to her true form: a racist old Karen who rouses the kids with a pistol because “she watched Madea movies”.

When Ms Sturk winds up kicking the bucket – felled by either her shock reaction to a rager Kenny throws at the house or an antihistamine overdose, it’s not clear which – the kids don’t grieve. Instead, they hatch a plan to dispose of the body. They’re nearly caught when an errant 911 call brings a cop to their driveway as they’re stuffing the old bag into a garage fridge.

This is one of the many earned moments where the film considers how the story would be different if it were Black latchkey kids conspiring in an involuntary manslaughter. But instead of a discursive, Kenya Barris-style Black history lesson, it’s enough for Kenny to name-drop the sheriff (a former lacrosse coach) to get out of the jam before berating his siblings for taking their fragile freedom entirely too lightly. (“He ain’t even believe we live here!” Kenny says of the cop, who couldn’t help sizing up their big house.) Points on fast fashion, food insecurity, toxic masculinity and college nostalgia are just as shrewdly made. If anything in the script grates, it’s the overreliance on the N-word – which is no doubt played a role in the film’s rating jumping from PG-13 to a hard R.

Ultimately, the kids dump Ms Sturak’s body in a nearby lake with her car and also the money their mom set aside for them to live off of. To make ends meet, the younger siblings push Tanya into the workforce; on the strength of Melissa and Jack’s forgery skills, Tanya lands a job in a fading fashion brand run by a relentlessly sunny girlboss named Rose – played to perfection by 2000s reality queen Nicole Richie. “The bug up her ass lives on the stick up her ass,” she says of Caroline (Will Trent’s Iantha Richardson), the vengeful staffer Rose overtakes for the dream job. “And her neighbors to the north are the chip on her shoulder.”

Where the Caroline character was more active in undermining Applegate’s Sue Ellen Crandell, in the 99-minute reboot, she makes more time for Gus (Jermaine Fowler), Rose’s f-boy paramour, and Bryan (Miles Fowler), Tanya’s crush. The attention allotted to the development of all characters, not just the primary Crandell child, is one area where the reboot improves on the Stephen Herek-directed prototype. Others are the clothes, colors and cinematography – and together they imbue the film with an airy spirit that harkens to the HBO series Insecure, where Allain-Marcus gained fame as lonely man of reason Derek DuBois. All the while, the reboot calls back to the 90s version through cameos (no spoilers) and pullquotes (“I’m right on top of that, Rose!), the transitions punctuated by a carefree soundtrack that whipsaws from Curtis Mayfield to Libra Jolie. Allain-Marcus even set the new family inside the same Santa Clarita house the Caucasian Crandells called home.

Because of so much Hollywood groupthink, the reboot has become synonymous with a specific kind of studio flex – a project for the sake of itself and the bottom line. But Don’t Tell Mom is a justifiably sweet feat that makes latchkey kids across the generations feel seen. Refreshingly, it represents real growth for an industry that would much rather be left to its own devices.

Costume Designer: Ceci

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