I’m going to get real here for a minute, so please bear with me.
A few months ago, my seven year old got her first diary. She was so excited to be able to fill it with her deepest ‘secrets’ she said, and she bounded up the stairs and locked herself (figuratively, since my seven year old does not actually have a lock on her door) in her room to write. The next day, I was tidying up her room and I saw her diary staring right up at me from her bookshelf and I couldn’t resist the urge to pop it open and read her first entry. Expecting to read about the boy she had a crush on and her dreams of being with him (yes, sadly I’m already dealing with that) I literally felt my stomach hit the floor when the first words I read were, “I am sad”. My eyes glazed over with tears as I continued reading and saw, “Everyone says they love me but I’m not sure they really do”.
I’ll tell you this, I have never been so crushed as a father than I was in that moment. Immediately I started to analyze every conversation I’ve ever had with my daughter, every disagreement we’ve had, every fight, every time I’d disciplined her or punished her or yelled at her. I questioned if I told her I loved her enough, did enough with her, spent enough quality time with her. HOW COULD SHE NOT KNOW THAT WE LOVED HER MORE THAN LIFE ITSELF!?!?! This was my happy girl, my beautiful, joyful, happy girl who brightens every room and loves everyone and who literally says her motto is, “Make a new friend every day”, and she does that. How could she be sad? How could she be saying these things?
Needless to say, she was not very happy with me when I told her that I read her diary, but there was no way we were not going to talk about this. It was in that moment, as she laid her head on my lap and cried about how she couldn’t explain her feelings but she just felt that way that I realized what parenthood was all about, and when I dried her eyes and she hugged me close and said, “Thank you daddy, I feel better now”, I knew that everything would be alright, and that this was just par for the course, but I also knew, in my gut, that this would NOT be the last time we’d be having this conversation.
Much like Pete Docter, the writer/director of Pixar’s newest masterpiece, ‘Inside Out’, I just want to understand my daughter better.
After seeing ‘Inside Out’, I’m so thankful that my daughter can understand herself a little better as well.
‘Inside Out’ tells the story of Riley, or more specifically, Riley’s emotions. Riley is a sweet, energetic, happy eleven year old girl who is posed with problem that, to her, is massive. She’s moving. Due to her father’s employment (which is obviously a source of stress for him), they have to leave her childhood home and move to a new place (which is pretty much a dump) and she has to enter a new school (which is not poised to be her friend) and yet she feels compelled to put on a smile and shelter her emotions from her parents so that she can make this easier on them.
On the inside, her emotions are having a bit of a conundrum.
You see, up until this point in Riley’s life, her inner workers have pretty much been guided by Joy, her first and primary emotion. Joy is a spitfire of fun and excitement and a bundle of positivity who watches closely over every moment in Riley’s life to extract and embellish the…joy. Riley’s life is guided by ‘core memories’, those special moments that have shaped the person she’s become, and those memories are inherently joyful. But, in a shocking twist, Sadness (an emotion that, up to this point, Joy sees no use for) starts touching everything, tainting new and even old memories, including the core memories, which causes chaos and thrusts Riley’s emotions (especially Joy) into sheer panic. Determined to keep the core memories out of Sadness’s reach, Joy snatches them out of their compartment but in the process she winds up being sucked out of the command station and spit out into Riley’s memory archives. Unfortunately, for Joy, Sadness was sucked out alongside her and now they have to work together to get back up to the command center before too much damage is done. With Joy and Sadness wandering hallways and entering secret compartments of Riley’s mind in order to find their way back, Anger, Disgust and Fear are left to man the station, and because of their utter confusion over how to handle this situation, Riley’s outward demeanor starts to change. She reaches that place between Joy and Sadness where her emotions are confused and sporadic and uncontrollable and, well, heartbreaking.
There is so much here that I want to talk about and yet, it’s hard to completely explain how much this film affected me without giving away too much of the plot or how it is woven.
But I’ll try.
I’m always intimately affected by films that accurately portray what it feels like to be a child. I think I’ve mentioned this many times on this site. Being a father has certainly colored the way I look at things and has created a stronger connection to that aspect of life, for sure, but I’ve always had this nostalgia associated with childhood and all that it meant to me, all that I want it to mean to my children. Taking on children’s emotions was a HUGE undertaking and, on the outset felt like something that was unattainable. I mean, how on earth do you capture such a confusing and emotionally unsteady time without being one-sided or completely singular in scope (focusing too heavily on ‘one kind of kid’)?
You do it like this.
I think a very telling thing, for me at least, was the drive home from the theater. I had all these emotions swirling in my head, but when my daughter says from the backseat, “I understand the sadness” and I prodded her to explain what she meant, it all clicked. When she told me that she understood why Riley’s happy thoughts were sad, I felt the power of what Pete Docter did here. He created a film that not only entertained but also spoke to the deeper part of a child; a film that reached them in a very powerful way. He knelt down to their level, looked in their eyes and said, “I get you.” He spoke to them, not at them, and because of that he did something very, very special.
The way that the mind is explored, from abstract thoughts to suppressed fears to our dreams are all so detailed and impressively handled, but at the heart of this film is a subtle yet profound look at how intricately unified our core emotions are. Sadness is ultimately something that no one likes to feel, and yet Docter beautifully underscores that it’s okay to be sad, that it’s healthy to understand and accept those emotions, and that sometimes, through the expression of sadness, we can find slivers of joy. Helping children (and parents) to understand why these things happen and how we can learn from them is such a beautiful gift.
Oh, and I bawled like a baby throughout this entire movie. From the very first moment, when Joy appears and presses her button and baby Riley opens her eyes and coos at her mother and father, I just lost it. Memories of my baby girl’s birth, her smiling in my arms, the immense joy I felt as a father just flooded me; overtook me. I literally had to get up with my two year old (thank you son, for providing a valid excuse) and stand in the hallway by the exit doors for the remainder of the film so I could blubber like a baby without my wife judging me.
So grab a box of Kleenex before you sit down for this one.
In closing (wait, is there more to say?), I just have to say that I can only echo the rapturous praise this film has already received. For me, this is a perfect movie, and movie that transcends what we expect from a specific genre and delivers an experience that we can’t take for granted. ‘Inside Out’ truly is a film that helps us better understand ourselves and the ones we love the most.
As one critic put it, “You will look at the screen and know yourself.”