‘PINK SKIES AHEAD’ AFI Fest Review: Jessica Barden stars in a confident directorial debut


Courtney Howard // Film Critic


Not Yet Rated, 94 minutes

Directed by: Kelly Oxford

Starring: Jessica Barden, Michael McKean, Marcia Gay Harden, Lewis Pullman, Rosa SalazarOdeya Rush, Henry Winkler, Mary J. Blige

It’s no coincidence that filmmaker Kelly Oxford’s PINK SKIES AHEAD has the same acronym as “Public Service Announcement” as it stands similarly as a wake-up call for those who may be ensconced in denial, or struggling in silence with an anxiety disorder. Avoiding the trappings of a hokey after-school special, Oxford’s film feels lived in, literally speaking from authority. Based on Oxford’s personal essay “No Real Danger” which chronicled grappling with her own mental health issues, the comedically-tinged fictionalized drama paints a staggeringly honest, raw and revelatory portrait that makes for an assured debut directorial feature.

20-year-old Winona (Jessica Barden) is a petite package of Manic Panic blue hair and crippling neurosis who’s left college and moved back in with her folks. She subsists on an infantile diet of Slurpees (or “freezes” as they’re called here), soda and candy. She’s not your average case of stunted adulthood, however. She’s at the mercy of her own self-doubt, fighting thoughts she’s a failure, and outside pressures from her caring, but overbearing mother Pamela (Marcia Gay Harden). Over the years, her extreme worries and fears have manifested in physical ailments which pediatrician Dr. Cotton (Henry Winkler) has kept track of in a hilariously thick file. Her latest illness, though, causes him to finally give a comprehensive and exhaustive diagnosis: she’s got a serious anxiety disorder.

Winona, of course, is quick to reject this notion, having never experienced a panic attack before. But on the heels of her parents announcing they’re downsizing their San Fernando Valley home for a small Westside apartment, which would causing an upheaval to her laid-back lifestyle, she seeks out the help of referred therapist, Doctor Monroe (Mary J. Blige). She’s put into group talk therapy with a few others, yet feels like an outsider since she doesn’t share their same symptoms. At this same time, Winona begins to suspect that her father Robert (Michael McKean) is having an affair with a mystery woman at work, thus manufacturing more drama to keep her mind from not focusing on her own issues desperately needing care.

Odeya Rush and Jessica Barden in PINK SKIES AHEAD.

Barden is indeed a compelling performer with her acerbic attitude, raspy voice and nuanced, natural instincts. Yet it’s McKean who turns in tender, vulnerable work – colors we rarely see on him. He and Barden have great chemistry whenever they’re paired together in a scene, whether that be sharing a laugh about a goofy gift, or having it out emotionally in an argument. There’s a sweet father-daughter dynamic in which the pair add depth and dimension.

Supporting players also serve their functions well. Winona’s enlightened voice of reason Addie (Rosa Salazar) and slacker bestie Stephanie (Odeya Rush) are sweet-spirited confidants, providing the picture with fervent female-friendships. Winona’s college-educated boyfriend Ben (Lewis Pullman) represents the successful guy most women want. There’s an empowering sequence involving the duo, that aids in Winona’s agency.

Aesthetically, Oxford fully immerses us in Winona’s inevitable panic attacks so we get a feel for their unrelenting and oppressive qualities. A scuzzy low-fi bass vibration in the score plays in concert with imagery of blurred vision and an unfocused headspace. She and cinematographer Charlie Sarroff adeptly navigate the worlds these young adults inhabit from effused natural lighting outdoors, to the saturated indoors of bars and restaurants. The bright, candy-coated pastels of the convenient store (a place patronized by young adults in coming-of-age films like HEATHERS and REALITY BITES) where Winona and her friends hang even appear like a pop play-land.

Oxford, an accomplished writer herself , interweaves her colorful, descriptive prose perfectly through Winona’s narration, which blessedly evades any “screenwriter 101” crutch-like tendencies. When it comes into play, it’s there to augment the protagonist’s perspective, not the author’s narcissism. On the whole, the film is notably respectful in its de-stigmatization of therapy and treatment of mental illness, avoiding triggering language, or condescension. Talk therapy is valued as the primary care. Medication is never mentioned. The only villain is the disease and its ability to hobble the afflicted if left untreated – and, even then, that sentiment is subtly observed instead of overtly stated.

Setting the story in 1998 conjures a slight nostalgia, with its soundtrack (Smashing Pumpkins and Hole make appearances) and wardrobe. Yet for the betterment that type of romanticism brings, the subject matter is given an incredibly insightful, compassionate and reflective glare.

Grade: 4 out of 5

PINK SKIES AHEAD played AFI Fest on October 18. MTV Studios has acquired the film for distribution.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.