Reel Therapy

Unraveling the mind through film

A Babysitter's Worst Nightmare

An appealing twist to the age-old cinematic archetype

There's a storyline that has circulated throughout cinema over the past few decades: The unprepared babysitter, in a single and unforgettable night, inherits a group of nightmarishly uncontrollable kids. It's a familiar setup, and what I enjoyed most about the recently-released (to DVD) "The Sitter" is the sweet, emotionally-tuned sensibility that underlies the narrative.

 

Let me be clear. This is a Jonah Hill film that unfolds with all of the immaturity, sexual innuendo and drug culture punch lines that one would expect. But that's just one layer of the story. There's another story that emerges sporadically but consistently throughout the film (particularly at the end) that is very much about psychological growth, familial harmony and other such wholesome concepts.

So, yes, Jonah Hill plays a college student on academic leave and, at least initially, is defiantly defined by an adolescent aimlessness. His highest priority, for instance, is figuring out where his next sexual experience is going to come from. Enough said.

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The plot is kick-started when Jonah volunteers to babysit his neighbor's three children for the night. Little does he know what he's getting himself into. Each child represents a humorously familiar archetype of dysfunction.

There's Blithe, a tween, who moves through life not as the cute 8-year-old we'd like her to be, but the disturbingly sexualized, celebrity-obsessed adolescent that she constantly tries to be. She flirts and violates other interpersonal boundaries with Jonah, slaps on makeup with a paintbrush, overvalues materialism, and wants nothing more than to find a hot dance club so that she can let loose on table-tops. I'll call this the Paris Hilton Dysfunction.

Then there's Slater, the budding teenager who presents as the overburdened, overstressed mental patient-in-waiting. He would be the capable, quiet and kind-hearted older brother except he's too preoccupied with inexplicable anxieties. He clutches his fanny pack of sedatives, paces with existential angst, and ruminates about all of his "issues" like a teenage Woody Allen.

And finally we have the recently-adopted Rodrigo. He's right out of those bad 80s movies about high school teachers and unreachable inner city youths. He's a slick-haired, fast-talking Hispanic kid. It's unclear how old he is but his pajamas scream ten year-old. And he's filled with all the angry, rule-breaking rebelliousness of a natural-born hoodlum. He loves explosives, breaks furniture with tic-like automaticity, and urinates when and where he damn well pleases. He represents the juvenile delinquent archetype if ever there was one.

So this is the crew that the pervasively irresponsible Jonah is in charge of. And, yes, what ensues is a night filled with jewelry heists, car chases, crazed drug dealers, and all the other things that one expects from a babysitter movie that tries to cross lines of outrageousness. And it's funny, absurd, and disturbing all at once.

And yet at the end of the night, as the dust settles, everyone has grown, emotionally speaking. Jonah has a newfound sense of responsibility, and clear-headed judgment about how to live his life. Blithe drops the Paris Hilton façade and starts acting like the kid that she is. Slater stabilizes his identity and stops channeling his anxiety into an empty sick role. And Rodrigo's anger dissipates to the point that he actually starts to clean up the furniture that he breaks.

There's a family systems explanation for all the distress and dysfunction within the kids. Sure, individual factors like genes, personality style and culture play into it, but the film highlights one piece of the puzzle that often gets short shrift—the family system.

And when I say family system I don't just mean 'the parents.' I mean the way in which all the family members relate to each other, and all the invisible rules and roles that the parents and children co-construct in maintaining equilibrium. The film doesn't really get into this idea, but at the end what is clear is this: Blithe was acting like Paris Hilton, in part, because she was harboring a painful secret. Her father is cheating on her mother, she knows it, everybody senses it, and nobody is talking about it. Slater was doing his Woody Allen impersonation because he is gay but has been fighting this realization tooth and nail, and nobody has helped him to tune into this internal battle. And Rodrigo was in need of anger management classes because all his life he had bounced from family to family, and this family was not acknowledging that or helping him to feel any differently about his fate.

Throughout the film, in-between Saturday Night Live-type comedic sequences, Jonah circulates from child to child and injects each one with a little interpersonal recipe that the parents should have been doing but weren't. Jonah listens calmly, he validates emotional experiences consistently, he speaks openly about the easily-identifiable problems, and he reflects a caring/accepting attitude. He helped Blithe to unburden herself of the dark secret, he helped Slater tune into his homosexuality, and he helped everyone be less afraid of Rodrigo, including Rodrigo.

We all knew Jonah Hill was going to play a hilarious and disturbingly reckless babysitter, but who knew that he was also going to provide a little family therapy on the side?

 

Jeremy Clyman, Psy.D., attained his doctorate in clinical psychology at Yeshiva University.

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