‘Don’t Tell Mom’ review: Smart remake has heart, vital signs


The hazards of remaking a beloved film are well known. While the 1991 comedy “Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead,” starring Christina Applegate, didn’t exactly thrill critics 33 years ago, it’s become a cult classic, especially for elder millennials who grew up on the movie. It’s the ideal text for a remake: The source material isn’t regarded as untouchable, the name recognition is high and it can be easily adapted to a modern milieu while still stoking childhood memories for those who love the original.

Nostalgia can be a trap, one that writer Chuck Hayward and director Wade Allain-Marcus fortunately sidestep. There are enough nods to the first film to please fans looking for Easter eggs, but they don’t get in the way of the story itself, a teen comedy that keeps it real, despite the heightened circumstances. They also update the family from white to Black, which brings a different layer of stakes to the situation.

After their mother (Patricia “Ms. Pat” Williams) suffers a nervous breakdown at work, the Crandell siblings are left in the care of a Mrs. Sturak (June Squibb), a sweet old lady who reveals herself to be a nagging, racist, slut-shaming tyrant. In her advanced age, she drops dead from shock — or perhaps secondhand smoke — after the wild rager that the kids throw in the house proves too much for her to bear. Hoping to evade the authorities, the Crandell siblings get rid of her body, along with her purse filled with cash from Mom.

Without wanting to disturb their mentally fragile mother, shipped off to a meditation retreat in Thailand, it’s up to big sis Tanya (Simone Joy Jones) to get a grownup job and provide for her siblings. So much for a fun summer; she’s now learning the joys of a Los Angeles morning commute and cutthroat office politics at a fashion company called Libra. Meanwhile, her skater brother Kenny (Donielle T. Hansley Jr.) has to get his slacker act together to hold down the fort at home.

A babysitter stands aghast at the goings-on of a house party.

June Squibb in the movie “Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead.”

(Iconic Events Releasing)

Much of the appeal of the original film came from Applegate in her first major film role (she was already well-known thanks to “Married … With Children”), playing eldest sister Sue Ellen. Jones is similarly charming, selling a performance of a likable teen who is in over her head but gamely manages to thrive in a professional work environment.

The script by Hayward isn’t exactly breaking new ground (this is a remake after all), but it establishes the Crandells as unique and distinctive characters, including smart and weird little bro Zack (Carter Young) and morbid gamer tween Melissa (Ayaamii Sledge). Their domestic interactions are funny and natural, and their healthy skepticism of the police has real consequences and informs their questionable decision-making.

The only weak link in the family is Williams, a stand-up comedian whose small, underwritten part as mom to the Crandell kids doesn’t play to her strengths. Meanwhile, Tanya’s new role model at Libra is portrayed by Nicole Richie, so dynamic and energizing onscreen you wonder why she doesn’t act more. She has genuine chemistry with Jones.

This is the first major feature directed by Allain-Marcus, an actor who co-starred on “Insecure,” and he does a lot to demonstrate his abilities and influences as a filmmaker here. The cinematography by Matt Clegg is crisp and saturated, utilizing a lot of complex tracking shots, and there are nods to ’70s-style filmmaking and retro touches like the yellow title font that drops about 18 minutes into the film. Some of these flourishes are slightly inconsistent with the material, but demonstrate a new voice excited to experiment with the form of teen comedy.

“Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead” is surprisingly authentic and fun for remake material, which is naturally formulaic. It’s the focus on character work that lets this one sing, and it should make a star out of Jones, who, like her character, manages to hold it all together.

Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.

‘Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead’

Rating: R, for teen drug use, language and some sexual references

Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes

Playing: In wide release Friday, April 12


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