Set in 1998 Los Angeles, Pink Skies Ahead is another treasured entry in the coming-of-age dramedy oeuvre, this time with autobiographical touches of writer/director Kelly Oxford’s struggles with anxiety. Hailing from MTV Studios, I really admired the way this film goes out of its way to break down the walls of mental illness stigma. The audience learns about the specifics and the symptoms right along with Winona (Jessica Barden). Pink Skies Ahead acts as a window into a specific subset of Winona’s journey, from diagnosis, to disbelief, to coping with her disorder day-to-day.
Winona is at a weird spot in her life: she can’t seem to pass her driver’s test no matter how hard she tries, she’s an aspiring writer who dropped out of college, and she’s back living with her parents. She still uses the same doctor she’s had her entire life, a kind and sweet pediatrician (Henry Winkler). When he suggests that Winona has an anxiety disorder and needs a therapist, Winona refuses to believe it. Winona continues life as she knows it—she meets a cute guy (Lewis Pullman) going for his PHD, far different than the typical neck-tatted bad boys she goes for, and parties with her friends Stephanie (Odeya Rush) and Addie (Rose Salazar). With the revelation that her parents will be “downsizing” (trading in the family home for a cute apartment and travel), Winona attempts to stay comfortable in her situation, with the looming heaviness of her very real anxiety disorder threatening to emerge…
The first half is effective setup at getting us to know Winona’s normal existence, and it’s filled by an ensemble of great talent from Winona’s parents (Marcia Gay Harden and Michael McKean) and her close friends (Odeya Rush and Rosa Salazar). Even Winona’s bestie thinks she’s “high strung,” in spite of her best attempts to party it all away. This is a character who goes to a therapist (Mary J. Blige) for the very first time and confesses her deepest, darkest secret: “I think I’m an asshole.” Her relationship with Ben (Lewis Pullman) is so adorable as it blooms, sparked from their first encounter at a bar. A classy dinner where Winona goes a little wild ordering her food, and a hilariously awkward hang out at Ben’s place amidst his roommate having a party for her mother, are highlights of Winona’s time with Ben.
As Winona’s disorder begins to manifest, despite her best efforts to suppress it, Jessica Barden captivates and shocks with her layered, natural performance. A clear highlight takes on the bottled experience of a job interview—nearly anyone can relate to having interview anxiety, but this takes it to a dark place you’d never want to imagine. Barden juggles the highs and the lows with vulnerability and conviction. It takes a frustratingly long time for Winona to accept that she might have a problem, but this is part of the road we travel with her
One out of every five people experience mental illness, which was clearly a primary motivator for Kelly Oxford to share this story with the world. The more we spread awareness about how to live even despite your illnesses, the further we will come away from so many unfair stigmas. Buoyed by Jessica Barden’s honest performance as Winona, Pink Skies Ahead presents a meaningful character study, and a nostalgic 90’s style peppered with authenticity.
Pink Skies Ahead premieres on MTV on Saturday, May 8th, with a forthcoming Blu-Ray and DVD release date to be announced.