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The cathartic gift of Inside Out

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(Note: This essay discusses specific plot details from the new Pixar movie Inside Out.)

I am as big a Facebook dork as anyone, maybe more so, but even I understand that there are times when it just sucks. When you’ve just broken up with someone and all you see are wedding pictures. When you’re having trouble getting pregnant and all you see are babies. Apparently, the FOMO syndrome makes people who spend a lot of time on Facebook more depressed than people who don’t. As I’ve mentioned once or twice (or 12) on this site, my parents have passed away, which can throw a dark hue over most holidays: Thanksgiving and Christmas are especially painful, as well as Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. Seeing all those pictures of “So happy to have everyone together again” when your family is missing a few vital members can make a Scrooge out of anyone. Screw you, Hallmark.


This year, my birthday coincided with Father’s Day, which only happens every seven years or so, give or take a leap year. This was bad news for my husband and me, as we now had to enter a cage match over who got to take a nap that day. (For parents of small children, napping is the ultimate prize.) The rest of the weekend, I had a birthday that rocked harder than ones in my 20s. Karaoke party, taken out to fabulous dinners by friends, my awesome A.V. Club boss Laura Browning made me delicious cookies from scratch. I’m a very lucky girl—and I will insist on calling myself a girl no matter how old I ever get, just like Anna Madrigal: handsome, hard-working husband; delightful children that are now old enough that they hardly ever throw hard objects at me anymore; idyllic neighborhood; and the greatest workplace in the known universe. I have no business throwing myself a pity party on my birthday or any other day. And yet…

Your birthday becomes less and less important as you get older, even though I know 12-year-olds who got less attention on their big day this year than I did. But whether your birthday is hardly recognized or over-the-top, you can usually count on a call or a card from your parental units. My mother was extremely thoughtful in this respect, and loved to send me stuff in the mail. She was one of those people who would also mail me a card “just because,” whether I was away at college or working as a bingo-parlor hostess in Brighton, England. That winter she just kept sending me sweaters and blankets until I had to tell her: “Mom, it’s England, not Siberia. It’s not colder than Chicago here. Just wetter.”


One of the fun parts of Facebook is all those birthday messages you receive on your page, and I kept getting pinged all morning. But visiting Facebook also brought me to all the Father’s Day family photos, which kept reminding me that my family had basically dwindled down to my immediate unit (those three people mentioned above), and for the first time in a long while, I was really sad. I wanted my parents. I missed them, dammit. I wanted them to see how big my kids were and send them links to my favorite writing clips. I wanted my mother’s shortbread cookies and my father’s pizza, which I’ve never been able to replicate despite many desperate attempts.

My children were unsurprisingly bewildered as to why Mommy would be crying on her birthday, so I eventually got the family to rally for a neighborhood brunch (and to get Mommy a mimosa, stat). After brunch, I planned on taking the kids to our vintage neighborhood movie theater with the creaky chairs and slanted screens to see Inside Out. My husband won the nap cage match by begging off and going home. He was still asleep when we returned at dinnertime.

It turns out that seeing Inside Out was the absolute perfect movie for me to see on this day of all days. Jesus, thank you, Pixar.

Inside Out has gotten a lot of accolades lately, all deserved. Our own A.A. Dowd gave it an A-, and warned me to bring a metric ton of Kleenex, as most humans with hearts and pulses can’t help but cry at this movie. Sure enough, our local movie theater was packed with dads spending Father’s Day with their kids, and moms like me who were giving the dads a break. You’ve heard that Inside Out is one of those movies that both parents and kids can enjoy: I see everything animated or kid-skewed in the theater, from Home to Turbo to Epic, and I can confirm this is true. Some of these are so heinous that when a kid movie comes out that’s actually enjoyable—like Paddington last year—I know I’ll probably be seeing it five or six times. So there are entertaining kids’ movies, but rarely are there revelatory kids’ movies, which is what Inside Out wound up being for me.


Of course, parents and kids like this movie for different reasons, as it features 11-year-old Riley and how her emotions are maneuvered by five personalized emotions: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear. There was a dad in front of me howling with laughter when Joy and Sadness and Bing Bong (who represents Riley’s imaginative childhood) went two-dimensional in Riley’s chamber of abstract thinking, as his kids stared at him blankly. The theater-wide crying probably started when Bing Bong faded away, but from separate perception angles. The kids were going to miss a fun and funny pink elephant. Parents sobbed over the fact that those days of droopy diapers and chubby legs staggering around like Andy Capp after a night at the pub are long gone, never to return. I will likely never read a book that rhymes out loud to my kids again; this was the high point of my day for several years.

Slowly, Sadness started inching her way forward as the true hero of Inside Out, which is when I decided to give up and just keep crying throughout the movie. Once I accepted that, I really got absorbed in Sadness’ plight. Joy begins the movie by wanting to diminish Sadness, so that Riley’s every day can be joyful and yellow, which would actually be a pretty bland existence. Whenever Joy thinks she can fix every problem—when Bing Bong remembers how upset he was when Riley stopped playing with him, when Riley needs to be woken up out of a dream—Sadness realizes that there are other emotions that can do the job better. She talks to Bing Bong instead of just brushing him off and demanding his instant happiness; she knows that only fear can wake Riley from a deep sleep. The worst move Riley’s well-intentioned mother makes is asking her daughter to keep smiling and stay positive when she’s feeling anything but that way. Riley runs away because it’s easier to do that than to tell her parents she’s unhappy, and it’s only when Sadness finally returns and lets Riley experience her grief for Minnesota that she’s able to go home and tell her parents how she really feels.


Luckily for me, Inside Out offered a perfect platform for a vital discussion with my kids. We went for cupcakes after the movie and I talked about why I had been so unhappy about Nana and the grandpa they never even got to meet. I was sad because I still missed my parents, and even though it at first seemed as unlikely to my kids as it did to Joy, that was actually a very good thing, because it meant that I loved them. Having Inside Out as a background helped explain this to them better than I ever could have on my own.

Then I bought the kids dollar toys at the second-hand toy shop and we walked all the way home. Holding my hand, my daughter said, “Mom, they forgot one feeling: They forgot Wonder,” and my yellow ball was firmly in place again. My parents are gone, but now I’m a parent: It’s not about me anymore. I will definitely be sending my kids piles of sweaters if they move to England after college, and for the first time I recognize my mother’s fervent desire to keep that connection between us intact, even across an ocean.


All the feelings are important. I probably wouldn’t have had that meltdown last Sunday if I let myself remember my parents more often, even if it makes me sad sometimes. Inside Out reminded me just how crucial that is.