Vada Sultenfuss has lived her first eleven years surrounded by death. Her father owns and runs a funeral home, and he talks about cadavers and funerals with his daughter (and anyone else who might be around) as though that’s a perfectly ordinary topic of conversation. Which, as a funeral home director, maybe it is. Nevertheless, constantly being reminded of death isn’t exactly healthy for a tween girl.
While many coming of age stories push their main character into, well, coming of age by having a close friend, parent, or pet die unexpectedly, few (if any) put such a focus on death and dying right from the start. Not only does Vada live in a funeral home, but she’s also pretty sure she killed her mother (by being born). Already, she’s having to think through tragedies and feel emotions that few eleven-year-olds have to face. But Vada still hasn’t really ‘come of age’ yet. She’s alternately terrified by and fascinated with death. She and her best friend Thomas J. hang out together and trash talk each other like normal little kids. And when a stranger called Shelly starts working at the funeral home and falling in love with Vada’s dad, Vada is pretty immature about the whole thing.
Vada also has a pretty intense crush on her English teacher—intense enough that she steals Shelly’s money to pay for a summer school poetry class that’s being taught by said teacher. While in the class (which is comprised entirely of adults, except for Vada), she writes a poem about ice cream and reads it out to her teacher. After she’s finished, he praises her rhyming skills and then says, “You’re not expressing to me what’s in your soul. I want you to show me how you see the world, your fears, your desires, your innermost secrets.”
While Vada has fears, desires, and secrets, she hasn’t matured to where she’s able to share them in that most heart-baring form of all: poetry. Instead, she goes and plays with Thomas J.
So what makes Vada grow up, to place My Girl in the ‘coming of age’ genre?
Her best friend dies. Though Vada has known about death all her life, this is the first time where it really, truly breaks her heart. Of course, there was her mother, but Vada seems quite matter-of-fact about her death (for the most part). No, it’s Thomas J.’s death that propels her out of her old life and into a strange, hard, halfway mature one. Vada struggles with Thomas J.’s death, but eventually comes to terms with it—and with her mother’s death and with her English teacher being engaged to someone else. She’s growing up, learning that sometimes the joyful parts of life have to take a backseat while people grapple with grief and loss.
Near the end, Vada stands up and reads out a new poem, this one poignant where the other had been only passable. Her performance and poise both reveal and reflect who she has become over the course of the film—someone who, we now know, will grow into an amazing human being someday. She’s coming of age, and the only shame is that Thomas J. isn’t there to witness it.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Eva-Joy Schonhaar is an aspiring author who has written several novels and hopes to be published some day soon. She’s a Christian fangirl who drinks insane amounts of coffee, thinks that chocolate chip cookies solve pretty much everything, and always uses the Oxford Comma. In her spare time she can be found geeking out over superheroes and reading The Hunger Games for the millionth time.