AFI Fest 2020 Review: ‘Pink Skies Ahead’ is an Honest and Relatable Look at Anxiety

Anxiety is something that most young adults struggle with, and it seems to be increasing as the world appears to be erupting into chaos. Luckily, there has been an outpouring of advocacy for mental health, with more portrayals emerging in the media. The latest of these portrayals, Pink Skies Ahead, aims to paint an honest and relatable look at anxiety, specifically panic disorder. Adapted from an essay from Kelly Oxford‘s “When You Find Out the World Is Against You: And Other Funny Memories About Awful Moments,” Pink Skies Ahead finds a quirky and palatable way to get its message across and lets audiences know it’s OK to not be OK.

Written and directed by Kelly Oxford, her first feature is set in a 1998 Los Angeles. Pulling from the angst of the later years of Generation X, Oxford’s lead Winona (Jessica Barden) is snarky and downright grating at times. Having just quit college and returned to live with her parents (played by Michael McKean and Marcia Gay Harden), Winona is pissed at the world and doesn’t exactly know why. With no certain direction, Winona uses her time at home to rest and somewhat get her life back on track. Upon a visit to her doctor (Henry Winkler), Winona learns she has panic disorder. In denial at first, Winona is hesitant to see a therapist and attempts to go about her life, as usual, making many of the same self-destructive decisions.

Little by little, Winona’s world begins to unravel. Faced with a shaky home life, a high-stakes relationship, and an uncertain future, Winona begins to feel the pressure. Along the way, both of her best friends sit on opposite ends of the spectrum, representing two sides of their friend’s consciousness. Addie (Rosa Salazar) is more the voice of reason, encouraging Winona to get help and get her life together. Meanwhile, Stephanie (Odeya Rush) usually delights Winona with some partying and drugs.

Pink Skies Ahead - Andujar Twins

Visually and musically stylish, Pink Skies Ahead relays a difficult message with a pretty exterior. Fueled by a great nineties soundtrack, an attractive cast with cute outfits (Costume design by Romy Itzigsohn), and a plot that’s easy to follow, the film doesn’t deviate too far from similar fare that’s aimed at today’s socially conscious teens who happen to be attractive and from middle to upper-middle-class backgrounds. It’s important to mention that showcasing mental health disorders on screen is essential, but it’s also important to note Winona’s privilege that allows her to be diagnosed and re-discover herself as the film progresses. This may or may not resonate with people.

Of course, Winona is the main character, but many of the supporting acts just come and go, with no real-time to be appreciated as three-dimensional characters. Mary J. Blige appears briefly as Winona’s therapist but isn’t given the opportunity to make more of an impact. Lewis Pullman comes and goes as Winona’s well-to-do, ambitious boyfriend.

As Winona, Jessica Barden delivers an impressive performance. The titular role isn’t perfect and, at times, a bit unlikable, but Barden still manages to elicit empathy. As someone who also struggles with anxiety, it was refreshing to see some of my innermost feelings reflected on screen. Inspired by the experience of her own anxiety, Kelly Oxford lets her viewers know that this kind of thing happens to many of us, and it’s OK to get help. There is no magical cure, but there are steps to take to make things easier to handle. While the film reiterates the importance of therapy, little time is spent there (with mainly one emotionally-charged scene that takes a step in the right direction), and the film’s conclusion somewhat fizzles out and plays out like an after school special.

Overall, Pink Skies Ahead is not perfect, but it is a heartfelt and important statement for the new MTV generation. While the film is a period piece, it seems overtly modern. This type of film was well-needed in the time it was set, but it still can offer some solace right now.

Pink Skies Ahead (2020) - IMDb

Georgia born, North Carolina raised, and now California surviving, Adriana is a film critic who is working towards her Master of Arts in Clinical Psychology. She has a passion for discussing the connection between mental health, personal freedom, and movie-going. After discovering the joy and freedom of going to the movies alone, she started her site The Cinema Soloist in 2015. Since then, she's contributed to numerous websites and has covered festivals such as Sundance, TIFF, AFI Fest, Fantasia Fest, and more. She is a former marketing coordinator for the San Diego International Film Festival, Les Femmes Underground Film Festival, and Indian Film Festival of LA.

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