AFI FEST 2020: Pink Skies Ahead

Pink Skies Ahead. Photo credit: Tiffany Roohani.

Pink Skies Ahead takes us back to the Los Angeles of the late 1990s when a college students drops out and moves back in with her parents.

Aspiring writer Winona (Jessica Barden) drops out of college and gets diagnosed with an anxiety disorder after moving back home with her parents, Robert (Michael McKean) and Pamela (Marcia Gay Harden).  She’s in denial about Dr. Cotton’s (Henry Winkler) diagnosis.  After all, she’s never had a panic attack in her life.  Or so she thinks.  Anxiety can manifest in all kinds of ways.  You might not know until after someone else mentions it.  Everyone’s experiences are different.  In any event, Winona continues living her life as wildly as it may be.

Even though Winona rejects the diagnosis, she seeks out a therapist, Dr. Monroe (Mary J. Blige), and opens up about her darkest secrets.  She attends a group meeting but also comes to the decision that it isn’t for her.  In spite of Winona’s parents dropping a bombshell announcement on her, she meets Ben (Lewis Pullman) and the two start dating.

There’s one moment in here that runs on the sentimental side: one of the final on-screen encounters between Winona and Dr. Cotton.  It isn’t often–at least to my recollection–that a 20-year-old patient visits her pediatrician and says goodbye.  This also shows a sense of maturity on Winona’s end.  Ultimately, Winona comes to accept that she is not normal.  And again, there is nothing wrong with not being normal.  Nobody is perfect!

Jessica Barden is having herself quite the year with a pair of leading performances in both Holler and Pink Skies Ahead.  While both would launch at different festivals this fall, they were originally selected to premiere at this year’s SXSW Film Festival.  Because of Covid-19, audiences just had to wait a bit longer to watch this film for the first time.  Back to Barden, she is a star.  Barden is able to find everything that makes Winona tick and bring her alive through the screen.

Kelly Oxford bases her script on an essay she wrote, “No Real Danger.”  The essay can be found in When You Find Out the World is Against You: And Other Funny Memories About Awful Moments.  She draws on her own experiences when it comes to suffering from anxiety.  If you’re familiar with Oxford’s personal story, Winona is Kelly in this self-biographical film.  All you need to do is change the film’s Los Angeles setting to Edmonton and this really is Kelly’s personal story.  There is so much in the film that people can certainly resonate with the character.  Have you ever been to a job interview where your anxiety lands you in a bad place?  This moment is in the film and let’s just say you cannot help but feel for Winona.  We all have our own anxieties even if we’re not outwardly facing them and hiding under a shell.

Behind the camera, some of the framing choices really sell the panic attacks that we’re seeing on screen.  We especially see this a few times in the film but the biggest one of all comes during the job interview.  There are other moments, too, but one gets this sense of knowing how cathartic the process was for the filmmaker.

Mental illness shouldn’t be a stigma.  You should be allowed to talk about it without being shamed.  What a film like Pink Skies Ahead says is that it’s okay not to be okay and that’s okay.  There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this.  If you need to see a therapist or check yourself in to a psych ward, nobody should have to shame you over it.

CAST:  Jessica Barden, Marcia Gay Harden, Michael Mckean, Rosa Salazar, Lewis Pullman, Odeya Rush, Evan Ross, Henry Winkler, and Mary J. Blige

Pink Skies Ahead screened during the 2020 AFI FEST in the Special Presentations program. Grade: 4/5

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.