Winona worries a lot. She’s a writer who, despite showing some promise, has dropped out of college and moved back in with her parents. She works at her dad’s business. She can’t pass her driver’s test. She parties with her friends and gorges on candy and freezes from the convenience store. When Winona goes to her pediatrician (who she still sees as her primary doctor even though she is 20 years old) to get a sore armpit checked out, he tells her that she has an anxiety disorder and recommends that she see a therapist. Winona immediately rejects this diagnosis, however, believing that there is no way she suffers from extreme anxiety or depression because she’s never had a panic attack. This premise sets into motion writer/director Kelly Oxford’s debut feature film, “Pink Skies Ahead,” which premiered on MTV last weekend and will be released on demand in the near future. “Pink Skies Ahead” is a typical coming-of-age story with a not-so-typical exploration of mental illness.
Winona is brilliantly portrayed by Jessica Barden. Despite being older than her character, Barden convincingly portrays the aimless young woman, who can transition from being rather charming and funny and full of energy to annoyingly immature to on the verge of a breakdown in a heartbeat. She’s not one hundred percent likeable, and that’s okay; like the other characters in this movie and most people, especially people in their early twenties, Winona is full of holes. Oxford sets up the film and her character as someone who is outwardly confident (everything from her bright blue hair and extroverted personality contribute to this illusion), but who has that confident façade pulled apart after putting her through a series of stressful events over the course of the film. First, Winona finds out that her parents (played by Marcia Gay Harden and Michael McKean) are moving out of their family home and downsizing to an apartment on the other side of town. Then she believes that her father is having an affair. She reluctantly sees a therapist, but while she tries to brush it off, she’s obviously disturbed when the therapist asks about her mom. She starts dating a nice guy named Ben (Lewis Pullman), a philosophy student getting his PhD, but a great a guy as Ben appears I think we can all predict where that relationship is headed. She begins looking for a new job and a place of her own, but struggles to figure out what’s she’s doing and where she belongs.
All of these things add up to Winona inevitably having that panic attack. We know that there’s a shift happening within Winona by the way the sound begins to fade out, replaced with a ringing noise. Oxford doesn’t shy away from portraying the full extent of what a panic attack can be when it happens to Winona, but she handles these scenes with empathy in a way that doesn’t feel performative. This is likely because the film, set in 1998 Los Angeles, is based on Oxford’s own life as a young woman, so she comes at the subject matter with understanding. There is a frankness to Winona’s initial denial, breakdown, and eventual acceptance that is refreshing and not something that many movies dealing with mental illness portray so sincerely.
These scenes in “Pink Skies Ahead” are very sobering, but otherwise the film is quite funny, the script containing a lot of Oxford’s signature wit. Sometimes this back and forth in tone is a bit too much, but in general, Winona (and Barden) keep the film centered. The cast in general is really wonderful; besides those previously mentioned, Mary J. Bilge plays the therapist, Dr. Monroe, and Rosa Salazar and Odeya Rush play Addie and Stephanie, Winona’s best friends. Henry Winkler is a delight as Winona’s longtime pediatrician Dr. Cotton. As Winona’s parents, Harden and McKean always make it clear that they love and care about what happens to their daughter, despite their differences regarding what she’s doing with her life.
There are story elements of “Pink Skies Ahead” that are rather uneven and don’t fully pull together at the end, but as both a slice of one small portion of the protagonist’s life and as a step toward continuing to normalize and open up the conversation around mental illness, “Pink Skies Ahead” is a success. Personally, I’ve been a fan of Oxford’s work for years—from when Roger Ebert championed her on twitter to her snapchats to her books—and it’s truly so satisfying to see her continue to thrive and to see her first film be such a success. The title of the film suggests that whatever challenges she may face, there are good things ahead for Winona, and I think the same is true for Kelly Oxford.
Runtime: 94 minutes. Rated TV-14.