Why ‘Inside Out' will start an important conversation about mental health

I saw Inside Out on the Disney lot in Burbank, Cali., at an early screening for press and their plus-ones. As the movie ended, mine turned to me and asked if I was okay. It was a fair question. I was staring at the screen, outwardly emotionless and visibly a little shaken. I suspect my mouth was agape. But the question wasn’t just in response to my reaction; it was a response to my own struggles with depression, which I had, on previous occasions, described to him earnestly and in the best way I could, and which he had just seen play out on screen.

“It was exactly like you describe it,” he said, a little in awe. In 94 minutes, Inside Out had done what I never quite could: It had made someone who has not experienced depression understand it in a visceral way.

I want to say upfront that I loved Inside Out. It’s not a perfect film. Up is still probably the “best” entry in the Pixar catalogue. But I loved the movie; don’t let the emotionless, shaken, agape response from the intro fool you. Inside Out caught me off-guard, but in a way that I very much appreciate.

Inside Out focuses on an 11-year-old girl named Riley. Well, more specifically, it focuses on the little voices inside of Riley’s head. Those voices are her emotions — Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust. Like many kids, Riley’s dominant emotion is Joy. She’s generally happy and, when she’s not, everything inside of her works to restore equilibrium and get back to that happy place. When Riley’s family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco, her world is turned upside down and everything that makes her, well, her (her “Personality Islands” — being a goofball, being honest, loving hockey, caring about her friends and family) is challenged.

Ostensibly, Inside Out is a buddy road trip adventure quest. Riley’s Core Memories, the ones on which her Personality Islands are built, are lost, sent rocketing back into longterm memory, far away from HQ, where the emotions live and control things. Joy and Sadness go after them and Joy, the leader of the emotion crew, must take the lead in getting the Core Memories back — because anything sadness touches is turning blue.

This is the conflict on which much of the film’s tension is built. Joy’s instinct is to be, well, joyous. She’s energetic. She’s optimistic. She’s voiced by Leslie Knope. Sadness though, is more complex. She doesn’t want Riley to be sad, even if that’s her function. When her touch starts turning previously-happy memories (yellow glowing balls) into sad memories (blue glowing balls), it’s decided swiftly and unanimously that she just can’t touch anything. Sadness, for her part, doesn’t object. In fact, she’s eternally apologetic. Even after being scolded for touching memories and promising not to do it anymore, Sadness can’t help herself. She creeps around in the background, drawn to happy memories like a curious child to a shiny red button. When she’s caught breaking the rules, she apologizes again, explaining that she doesn’t know why she’s doing it and that she doesn’t mean to mess things up.

It was at this moment that I realized Riley was slipping into depression. Phyllis Smith, who voices the little blue blob known as Sadness, delivers these lines in a way that broke my heart into a thousand pieces. The shame and confusion about your feelings and actions, the obvious desire, but utter inability, to be another way — these are hallmarks of depression that are almost impossible to articulate (even here, I know I’m doing a poor job of capturing the feeling in words), but Pixar managed to convey them simply and eloquently in a few frames of animation.

As the film progresses, Pixar does something brilliant and beautiful and seamless in mixing the film’s message with its plot. The plot is a fantastic journey through a colorful and unpredictable mind. It’s Wonderland inside a child’s head, starring colorful characters and full of zany diversions. The message, of course, runs deeper.

With Joy and Sadness out of HQ, Riley’s state of mind is left to her three other emotions: Anger, Fear and Disgust. Unable to process things as happy or sad and driven by emotions she rarely uses and that don’t make sense in response to what’s happening around her, Riley starts to shut down. She spirals in a series of bad decisions that go against everything about her personality. Her remaining emotions try to signal her to stop, but they can’t. She can’t be made to feel angry or disgusted or even scared. Her emotions scramble to “fix” her, but her internal circuit board is broken and her control panel is going dark.

Now in my late twenties, I’ve spent more than a decade developing a vocabulary for talking about my struggles with anxiety and depression and I spent years before that identifying and naming the feelings for myself. I wish that Inside Out had existed when I was a child or a teen or even a college student. It’s a movie that can start a conversation about mental health and one that, I suspect, will help a few such conversations end in something at least approaching understanding and empathy.

Inside Out might not be Pixar’s best film, but it is Pixar at its best. It captures human emotion (very literally in this case), wraps it up in an adventure and polishes the whole thing off with a glossy sheen. It will literally make you feel all the feels, in the best way.

(Image via Pixar.)

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