Re-View: The Wonderfulness of the Slumber-Party Classic Troop Beverly Hills (1989)
From the director of Revenge of the Nerds!
When I think about the slumber parties I used to have with my friends as a pre-teen, the choice of movies we picked were some pretty defining moments in my film education. Carrie was a memorable watch (that gave us all nightmares), and Anne of Green Gables was a first-time marathon watch. One of the movies that I definitely recall loving at one of those gatherings was a little comedy called Troop Beverly Hills; I know I liked it as a kid because I saw it more than once (and watching The Money Pit because Shelley Long was in it). But it also stuck out because it was also one of the very few movies for kids or teens that put girls at the center of the plot. And considering how big a deal movies like Pitch Perfect 1 & 2 are (not to mention talk of sexism in films like Boyhood), that hasn’t really changed. Troop Beverly Hills was from the era of movies like Goonies, Stand By Me, The Sandlot, and The Mighty Ducks… and the only girl focused kids’ movie from that time I could think of was Troop Beverly Hills.
When I decided to re-watch the film and see how it holds up, imagine my surprise when I realized who the director was. Jeff Kanew is still a working editor/director, but even in 1989, his best known film was undeniably Revenge of the Nerds. I watched that film as a kid, but it was definitely a TV version, because I didn’t know until I was in my 20s about how unbelievably sexist it really was. I didn’t know about the Darth Vader rape or the surveillance scenes, and when I finally saw the film as an adult I found it pretty hard to laugh. But despite all that, at the center, there is a morality to that movie about that film that I like; a lesson about optimism in the face of discouragement and exclusion which is handled even better in Troop Beverly Hills.
In Revenge of the Nerds, the victims of judgement by the dominant group (the jocks) were the Nerds, who wanted the right to be frat-guys. In Troop Beverly Hills, the victims were the wealthy girls of Beverly Hills, who wanted to be wilderness girls, and their champion was the optimistic divorcee Phyllis (Shelley Long), whose daughter Hannah (Jenny Lewis) wants her mother to be their troop leader. Phyllis believes she can do anything (she just hasn’t had to try) and wants to prove herself as someone who can meet a goal. Unfortunately, there is a strict Wilderness Girl leader named Velda (Betty Thomas) who thinks the girls of Beverly Hills can’t hack it, making them the movie’s misfits.
When this movie came out, the film failed critically, with a lot of them annoyed that the movie focused on the upper class. Roger Ebert actually really hated the movie (putting it on his “worst of” show), primarily for not satirizing the wealthy or putting them in their place:
If Troop Beverly Hills had been directed by Paul Mazursky, Robert Altman, or any other director with a sardonic glint in his eye, this plot would have been the set-up for a satirical field day. And, indeed, there are a few mild jabs in the direction of satire, as when one little girl tells a ghost story in which there are scary noises in the foyer and then in the maid’s room. But the movie doesn’t have the imagination to make Long and her troop members the targets of real satire.
Well, pardon my French and disrespect of the late Roger Ebert, but no f**king kidding. This is clearly a movie meant for younger audiences and trying, earnestly, to make a moral statement about the need to be inclusive and encouraging of youngsters. And it isn’t really a good lesson to teach kids that just because of where they’re from, how they speak, or how much money they have, they should be dismissed as deserving of ridicule; yes, even if they’re wealthy, because that is a universal lesson. Sure, Phyllis needs to learn about ambition and persevering (let’s call that her arc), but we’re talking about kids. Kids who have no more control over where they come from and who their parents than any other kids, and wanting to use children for satire just seems cruel.
There is also a reason, with roots in comedy history, that films which want to be identifiable to the emotions and personal struggles of many often focus on the upper class: because their problems can so often seem trivial, you can project your own examples of injustice onto the story, while allowing the film not to be weighted down. Most of the comedies we consider “screwball” from the ’30s were set among the wealthy, but focused on problems which could stand in for the big issues effecting people during the Great Depression. In a movie like Clueless (made a few years later), the issues can be applied to someone we think shouldn’t have problems – who has the same personal problems as the viewers who probably don’t have her money or privilege, but feel the same stresses from just growing up.
Think about what the bigger lesson of Troop Beverly Hills really is: a group of girls, who embrace certain things (shopping, make-up, and dancing) are told by a woman in a position of authority that these characteristics and their family life make them incapable of being self-reliant wilderness girls. They just don’t fit into the mold, and they are publicly ridiculed and dispirited by others, including those in positions of authority. Their leader takes these words and, instead of becoming firmer or disheartened, encourages her girls to be positive, prove their worth, and never sacrifice their decency. In the end, they come out on top, and their rivals do themselves in (omg, this movie’s morality is more on point than this year’s Cinderella!)
Now, it’s not that hard to apply the slights the troop receive from the other wilderness girls, to when we hear about girls being told they do something “like a girl” as a way to discourage them from participating to our own lives. They embrace some traditionally girly activities or characteristics, and are then told they can’t do a traditionally male activity. But when given the chance, they can, even if they take a slightly different approach to achieving the same goals – such as when the girls sell cookies, which is a great scene of ingenuity. And discouraging a little girl from writing and performing a song like “Cookie Time” would be criminal (it is still a pretty really catchy tune).
Troop Beverly Hills is a really silly, dated movie; but any film where the sincere message is that everyone deserves a chance to try and belong earns a few points. Plus, any movie that shows Shelley Long’s comic chops is a must-watch, especially because she is an actress treated in Hollywood about as badly as Phyllis was treated by Velda.
Now for the thing that makes this piece of nostalgic viewing best with friends (no, it wasn’t that totally awesome Beach Boys song during the credits… although I do love it): the cast. Sure, Long, Thomas, and the underrated Mary Gross are really wonderful to watch; but for anyone in their 20s or 30s, this movie has a lot of familiar faces. Unfortunately, Aquilina Soriano didn’t go on to do very much, and (while not as bad as Chrissie Fit’s character in Pitch Perfect) the decision to have her play a non-specific Asian girl and daughter of a mysterious dictator is the big cringe moment of the movie. Tasha Scott had a nice career in the ’90s and became a singer, is pretty hilarious in the film, and has my favorite line in the entire movie because of her delivery.
Being a kid who admittedly watched garbage TV as a kid, I was very familiar with Heather Hopper from Good Morning Miss Bliss (pre-Saved by the Bell), Emily Schulman of Small Wonder, and Ami Foster of Punky Brewster. By the way, I didn’t recall the inference that Hopper’s Tessia is the daughter of a gay couple (Willie Garson and David Gautreaux), but it is a nice decision handled relatively well. I’ve definitely seen a couple episodes of Beverly Hills 90210, but it is fun seeing Tori Spelling as a snarky member of the rival troop. Kellie Martin of a good show called Life Goes On went on to work pretty consistently and carve out a nice career for herself. But perhaps the best known star to come out of Troop Beverly Hills is Carla Gugino, who was a bit too old for the role (she was 16) and just towers over the rest of the cast, but she was already a pretty good actress.
Then there is Jenny Lewis, who motivated this re-watch. Before she was a great indie pop singer and member of disbanded Rilo Kiley, she was a red-headed child actress who got an introducing credit in Troop Beverly Hills. And last week she released her ode to Troop Beverly Hills (along with The Wizard and Golden Girls) in her new music video. It was a welcome blast from the past.
Lesley Coffin is a New York transplant from the midwest. She is the New York-based writer/podcast editor for Filmoria and film contributor at The Interrobang. When not doing that, she’s writing books on classic Hollywood, including Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector and her new book Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System.
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