This post is dedicated to my oldest daughter, Leilani, on her 9th birthday. I love you, miss you, and think of you often. It also contains spoiler alerts, so don’t say you weren’t warned.
I couldn’t help but think of Lani while watching Inside Out, the new film from Pixar. It stars Amy Poehler as Joy, one of five emotions inside the head of 11-year-old Riley — the others being Anger, Disgust, Fear, and Sadness. The movie’s simple, yet brilliant construct is that the emotions run a command center in not just Riley’s emotional world, but everyone’s emotional world. Director Pete Docter‘s conceptualization of core memories as glowing orbs colored by the emotion that created them seems so banal, but it works brilliantly. The various islands (Friendship Island, Goofball Island, etc.) are another stroke of genius because that idea is so easy to understand. OF COURSE that’s how a kid would organize her world. Poehler is a force of nature as she channels Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest*. She’s the alpha female running the show, elevating the performance of everyone around her. I got a rule: If you don’t like Amy Poehler, I’m pretty sure you’re a dick. SERIOUSLY, HOW CAN YOU NOT LIKE HER???
Inside Out chronicles a family’s move from idyllic, rural Minnesota to hyper-urban San Francisco, where instead of normal pizza, you can only order broccoli pizza because SF is obviously overrun with self-loathing hipster assholes. Riley runs away, boarding a bus for Minnesota, but when Sadness takes over the command center for the first time, Riley is compelled to return home. Once there she breaks down in tears in front of her parents, putting a lie to the idea that she is their “happy girl.” Inside Out operates under the revolutionary premise that it’s ok for kids to be sad and that joy and sadness are inseparable emotions. That’s some zen shit right there. There’s a lot of Miyazaki (Spirited Away) in Inside Out, not to mention Toy Story 3, which also offered the idea of childhood as a sacred space, even if you ultimately outgrow it.
* If pushed, I’ll extend the Cuckoo’s Nest analogy further in saying that Sadness is an analogue to “Chief,” the big Indian played by Will Sampson, and what she ends up smothering is the childish version of Riley.
The movie’s more subversive message is that children require honesty from their parents to develop emotionally. The mom and dad in Inside Out are good people. Their only fault was being blind to their daughter’s struggles with the move to San Francisco. What makes the climactic scene work where Riley returns home, though, isn’t just that Riley finally admits she’s homesick for Minnesota, it’s that her parents also admit they’re homesick. Once Riley’s parents stop lying to themselves and her, she’s again able to create healthy new core memories. It’s a wonderful scene that assures us it’s OK to miss home. It’s OK for parents to display vulnerability to their children. It’s OK for a daughter to be sad about missing her father, especially if she hasn’t been allowed to speak with him for over 5 years. And therein lies my seed of hope. The Davises are stubborn folk, so I’m sure Lani has a few core daddy memories tucked away, part as connection to her past, and part just to piss off her mother. DNA can work against you, but it can also work for you. That’s just science.