Pink Skies Ahead: Manic Pixie Dream Girls, Mental Illness, and Memory



Pink Skies Ahead: Manic Pixie Dream Girls, mental illness and memory

May contain spoilers

In 2010, I was brought out of obscurity when Roger Ebert became my Twitter pal and started getting attention for my little blog (which eventually led to writing for this site). Around the same time, he also befriended Kelly Oxford, a fellow Canadian writer whose humorous Twitter one-liners were amplified by Roger and eventually caught Hollywood’s attention. Oxford has since moved to Los Angeles, written two books, gone viral with his pre-#Me Too #NotOkay hashtag about surviving sexual assault, earned a variety of IMDb credits (including parts in “Sharknado 2 and “The Disaster Artist”), and finally got the green light for “Pink Skies Ahead,” her first film as a writer and director.

Although the pandemic deprived “Pink Skies Ahead” of a true world premiere (originally scheduled for SXSW in March 2020), it was eventually picked up by MTV a few months later, where it is now streaming. I sincerely hope this movie finds its audience because it’s incredibly fun, and it’s a much needed “f**k you” to the manic pixie dream girl trope.

The film centers on Winona (Jessica Barden), a writer and school dropout who returns to live with her parents (played by Marcia Gay Harden and Michael McKean) until she figures things out. Right off the bat, her family doctor (Henry Winkler) diagnosed her with an anxiety disorder and spends most of the film in denial until her symptoms become impossible to control and ignore.

Her blue hair and tart tongue are reminiscent of Clementine’s character from “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” But the similarities to maniacal pixie dream girls end there, because this movie isn’t about a guy who “finds himself” via the wild, eccentric girl who falls into his life. “Pink Skies Ahead” is told entirely from Winona’s perspective; the desires we follow are his. The men who come in and out of her life are drops in an already full cup that is about to overflow.

In fact, Winona’s only attempt at a serious relationship ends when the guy realizes he doesn’t want to be with someone who doesn’t have his shit together. This plot doesn’t exist to make room for a better suited romantic interest; it is only one of the events that aggravates his anxiety symptoms.

And if the men existed to save Winona, they would have a hard time succeeding because she is completely disinterested in saving herself. She only adheres to therapy after suffering a prolonged panic attack where the only way out is psychological intervention. What I mean is that there are no fancy qualities in Winona. She’s interesting, funny and quirky, but she’s also a blatant crackpot. A bit too manic and not dreamy enough.

But if there’s one dreamy characteristic of this movie, it might be the soft pink hue that filters through every shot. Although sometimes a subtle detail, it serves more than one purpose. And while it may be tempting to attribute pink to femininity, there’s nothing to suggest that Winona meets those standards. But because we’re locked into her perspective, and because it’s a particularly cacophonous time in her life, pink feels like a calming presence, deafening Winona’s surroundings and stabilizing her inner life. It also evokes the fuzzy aesthetic of 1970s films, when sharp images were not of enduring value. Since the film is set in the late 90s, the pink becomes a vintage wash that anchors us in the past.

The fact that “Pink Skies Ahead” is set in the past proves significant, as it explains at least in part why Winona doesn’t take her diagnosis seriously. At the time, we did not have such a complete vocabulary pass on the experience of mental illness because it was not normalized.

In her late 90s, Winona has yet to be conditioned to scour the internet for her symptoms, and the few phone calls she makes are from a landline. Thus, her anxiety is experienced in isolation, with very few ways to help her understand how severe and debilitating anxiety can be. It is only after having a severe panic attack that she learns that it may have been passed down from her father.

Or maybe pink represents the rose-colored glasses we wear to remember our personal history. Perhaps the movie is an extended memory Winona has of that summer when she discovered she had anxiety. And she thinks back to the last time her parents took care of her like she was still a kid, and the close friends she had, and the smart PhD student she dated, and thinks that wasn’t not so bad.

Dealing with anxiety means a lot of decatastrophizing. It’s often about reframing the events unfolding around you and finding a way to convince yourself that things aren’t as bad as they seem. If you apply this to the past with enough vigor, it becomes possible to believe that more good things lie ahead.

Olivia Collet
Olivia Collet

Olivia Collette is based in Montreal and has written for the Montreal Gazette, World Film Locations: San Francisco, Sparksheet, Indiewire’s Press Play blog, Spectator Arts blog and other outlets. She discusses pop culture at Livvy Jams.

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