The truth is, "My Girl" has all of those elements (except for the latter; the film takes place during summertime). It isn't the most original story, and it doesn't try to be a masterpiece. Its goal is to entertain the younger viewer and to remind the older viewer of the nostalgic days of innocence and the heartbreaking first encounters with the loss of it.
Summer, 1972. Vada Sultenfuss (Anna Chlumsky) is a plucky 11-year-old who spends her summer days with her best pal, Thomas J. (Macaulay Culkin, who is far better here than anything else he's ever done). She dotes on her father, Harry (Dan Aykroid), who works as an in-house mortician. Subsequently, the Sultenfuss house (a grand old Victorian, naturally) is filled with the stench of death, made only worse by Vada's grandmother (Ann Nelson) whose only way of communicating is through her sporadic breaks into popular songs from the 1940s. It's only natural that Vada is also a hypochondriac who often believes she is dying.
This is, of course, the summer that Vada grows up. Signs of change first begin when a new woman shows up. Her name is Shelly De Voto (Jamie Lee Curtis), and she works as a makeup artist for the dead bodies. At first she is discouraged by the fact that her clientele are deceased, but when sees that Harry and Vada need an outlet, she gladly takes the job (`They're dead. All they have are their looks,' she cheerfully gleams.) Vada likes Shelly, but when she sees that Harry has developed a crush on her, she feels threatened. She does not want Shelley to take the place of her late mother, who died two days after Vada was born. Her only outlet is Thomas J., with whom she rides her bike to the lake and discusses all of the Big Issues (the meaning of life, love, death, which 70s TV family they'd live with.)
The other momentous event of the summer is Vada developing her first crush. It isn't Thomas J. (who idolizes her), but her teacher, Mr. Bixler (Griffin Dunne). He teaches a summer writing class at the local college, and Vada enrolls. Besides being the youngest in the class, she is also the only one who hasn't been taken over by 1970s psychedelia (one day, the class takes part in a group meditation.)
The strength of "My Girl" isn't its story, but its little nuances of innocent bliss. Vada willingly shows a group of glowing boys a dead body. As the ride their bikes, Vada and Thomas J. sing `The Name Game'. When writing poems `from the soul', Vada writes an ode to ice cream. The relationship between Harry and Shelly is sweet, too. Before their first date, Harry's womanizing brother points out that since Harry's last date, a sexual revolution has occurred. Of course, Shelly only desires a proper and old-fashioned gentleman, which very much complicates their first date.
Well, I loved this film. As a viewer, I try to watch for inconsistencies in the performances and the script, but this film had none. Dan Aykroid and Jamie Lee Curtis bring a low-key charm to their roles. Both have their flaws, and it sometimes seems they have nothing in common. But for some inexplicable reason, they are brought together and their encounters are tactful, witty, and very real.
As for Anna Chlumsky, it can only be said that this young actress sets the standard for all child performances. This is not a performance, in a traditional manner; she eludes all cutesy standards of the traditional child performance, and becomes a complex, multi-dimensional person with true needs. This little girl is extremely intelligent, and when Chlumsky delivers lines beyond her years, she doesn't do it with sarcasm or adorability, but with the oblivious nature that 11-year-olds find themselves in. The world may be changing around her, but she tries her hardest to maintain her sanity and cheerfulness.
Though "My Girl" is advertised as a kid's film, and kids would probably like it, this film is for adults. It isn't always a happy film, and there is a major tragedy toward the end of the film. But rather than sentimentalize, the tragedy serves as a bridge for young Vada in between the realms of innocence and childhood and the real world of loss and sadness. And as dark as "My Girl" may sometimes be, there is always a sense of charm and warmth brought to the screen by the characters. This is a wonderful, wonderful film.