For the first time in a long time, the high expectations I had of a movie were exceeded. Inside Out is really excellent, and I urge you –especially all adults, teachers and parents- to make time for it as soon as you can.
For those of you with kids eight and older, take them too. Younger children may enjoy the film – Oliver, who is six, simply said, “I liked it!”- but will probably miss many of the main points and lessons of this beautiful, wise story.
Riley, the protagonist, is a bubbly eleven-year-old who’s grown up in Minnesota. The story begins just before she and her parents head west to San Francisco, where her father’s work is taking them. They are a happy, closely-knit trio, but because all tales include a dramatic arc, you sense the other shoe might soon drop.
We come to know Riley from, literally, the inside out. Her brain is ably managed by five emotions stationed in Head Quarters: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust and Fear.
Joy is a perky ball of positive energy committed to making each day of Riley’s life as happy as possible. She lovingly guards the five core memories Riley has socked away in her eleven years, treasures that are shown as islands connected to but distinct from long-term memories, daily memories and headquarters itself. Family, Honesty, Hockey, Friendship and Goofball are the essential components of Riley’s personality, the big-ticket bits around which she makes sense of and participates in her life.
Sadness is perfectly conceived as an all-blue, droopy pessimist. She is kind but in the way that Eeyore is- unable to see the bright side, most capable of remembering the disappointing, sad dimensions of Riley’s experiences. Joy tolerates Sadness with joy’ish patience but doesn’t understand her. Their exchanges, though loving, often feel like accidental invalidations of Sadness’ existence.
Anger, Disgust and Fear are secondary characters but important ones. Fear is ever scared of the harmful unknown and so attempts to guard Riley from it. Disgust is a sassy gal who oversees the expected “yuks” –mostly represented as a lifelong disdain for broccoli- and those less so: the new house isn’t clean and looks like it has long wanted for love, and Riley is taken aback (until Joy steps in); the cool kids wear eye shadow and hip clothing to avoid yukky feelings of inadequacy and loneliness.
Anger, delightfully voiced by the comedian, Lewis Black, is always one frustration away from an eruption. Joy has kept him largely quiet during Riley’s life, but in moments when she becomes distracted by managing Sadness, Anger sneaks in and surprises both Riley and her parents.
Any parent who suddenly witnesses outbursts from their children as they grow –toddler tantrums, prepubescent door slamming, hormonal rage- understands and empathizes with Riley’s mom and dad as they react in shock and confusion.
I don’t want to spoil anything, so I’ll leave the details secret until you make your own trip to the theater, but what I adored about this film are the ways in which it validates –thereby showing the import of- all emotion as wise and needed; shows multiple perspectives –Riley, her parents, a teacher, boys- and treats each with complete respect; and beautifully portrays childhood and its natural end as equally important elements of maturation.
Without sadness, a person lives less fully. She is unable to communicate to others the times she is in need; of support, love, guidance. Others lose out on the ability to connect more deeply with the one who is hurting, who trusts them enough to open her heart to them and expose its pain.
Joy comes to recognize this as Sadness comforts Riley’s early-childhood imaginary friend. She finds a new appreciation for Sadness, as she sees that the connection forged when one bears witness to another’s distress is as precious and profound as is experiencing happiness together.
Joy also sees the weight an individual carries if expected to be happy all the time. Happiness is a laudable goal and boy does it feel great. But, it is unrealistic and damaging to put upon another’s shoulders the suggestion that happiness be all they feel.
I see this all the time in communities of mothers; they’ve been told –by society, peers, doctors unwilling or afraid to ask about pregnancy blues and postpartum depression- that motherhood is the pinnacle of a woman’s path and if she doesn’t love it all the time, there is something wrong with her.
I see it too when parents ignore or redirect their children’s sadness or anger or fear, who judge those emotions as less optimal, less “ok” than happiness. Inside Out shows, without any heavy-handedness, all we can miss by pushing Sadness away.
We are given smaller but very astute (and often completely hilarious) glimpses into the emotional headquarters of other characters in the story: Mom, Dad, friends, animals (truly, go see this for the preteen boy, dog and cat headquarter scenes alone). The lovely treatment of each character’s emotional experience with life makes you want to hug everyone around you: This isn’t easy for any one of us, even for those who seem to breeze by.
Inside Out is really about the slow move away from childhood, but there is one particular scene that drives that loss home in such a beautiful, heart-wrenching way. Tom and I cried, and Jack (almost 9) gripped my hand tightly and put his head on my shoulder. He couldn’t have articulated what the scene was representing, but the painful tugs in his heart and gut allowed him to understand that something big was happening.
What I loved about Inside Out’s treatment of this aspect of maturation was that it was wholly mourned but also celebrated in such an appropriately poignant way. What is being left behind willingly sacrifices itself so that ultimately, Riley can grow healthfully in the ways she needs to.
Pete Docter and Pixar (both of Up and Toy Story, by the way) have given us all an incredible opportunity in Inside Out: a chance to remember the ephemeral simplicity of childhood; to recall the pain and struggle in growing up and away from those early years; to look upon our own children with understanding as they forge their ways through maturation; and to give them the latitude and a wide emotional berth to do so.
Perhaps also, it’s worth treating ourselves with kid gloves more often, for although we grow into adults, life doesn’t just stop when we get there.