“I can’t have an anxiety disorder. I have never even had a panic attack. “
This incorrect understanding is just one of things Winona (Jessica Barden), a blue-haired twenty-year old college dropout, keeps telling herself from the moment her pediatrician, Dr. Cotton (Henry Winkler), diagnoses her with an anxiety disorder and says she should see a therapist.
He explains, “All of the ailments that you have brought me over the years (including, among others, armpit soreness, ulcers, and, concern she had breast cancer, when actually, her breasts were just growing), there is one constant, you and your worry. And, your worry manifests itself in ailments. “
In that instant, it does not matter that Dr. Cotton has a great rapport with Winona, or that this was among the gentlest and kindest ways to tell someone that their physical symptoms are caused by a mental health disorder. Winona is simply just not ready (or willing) to hear it. She finds much more comfort in her friend di lei Stephanie (Odeya Rush) telling her she doesn’t have anxiety because she is both “super chill” and not “fucked up.”
If Winona’s story feels familiar and real, perhaps that is because at its’ core, it is. Written and directed by Kelly Oxford, Pink Skies Ahead (premiering on MTV commercial free Saturday May 8th at 9 pm) is based on her autobiographical essay entitled “No Real Danger,” and is exactly how Oxford experienced her own anxiety, from having an awareness that something was wrong due to her physical symptoms, to being diagnosed and experiencing a period of denial, to the fact that, like Winona, she still saw her pediatrician until she was 20 years old. Her first panic attack of hers was the same way Winona experienced it, too.
While there were no movies in 1998 to help her through her anxiety diagnosis, Oxford does feel some mental health storylines in films have since been misleading (eg showing only one symptom, handwashing, to represent an entire disease, OCD). As a result, she says, “I really wanted to just be specific about anxiety in mine and show it from what my experience was because I know it to be true and real.”
Even just playing Winona helped Barden with her own mental health. She explains that she also has similar symptoms when she has a panic attack and is diagnosed with anxiety, but, before the film lei she had an entirely different understanding of all of it. She emphasizes, “Working with Kelly and making this movie was very influential in me getting a therapist and starting me off on the road I am on now, which I am so grateful for. I ended up loving exploring my own anxiety…[and] am grateful I could do something constructive with a largely dark part of my life. “
Dr. Christine Moutier, the Chief Medical Officer at The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), feels that Winona’s story resonates for anyone who is watching. She explains, “Pink Skies is an exceptional film in the way that you, the viewer, are immediately engaged in Winona’s life. Her character is complex and authentic, so that as the viewer you get to experience anxiety in a way that could actually provide an education for those without a background in mental health (either by training or lived experience) … The arc of her mental health journey shows not only the struggle but the beautiful, positive ways her mental health experiences deepen her perspective, her relationships, and empathy for others. ”
Pink Skies Ahead also encourages us to laugh at some of the hard topics, which we could all really use right now. Barden emphasizes, “For me the most important thing this movie shows is the humor. Our journey with our mental health can be funny. It has to be. You cannot just look at it as this black hole in your brain. ” As research she has worked on in partnership with the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative has shown characters with mental health conditions are frequently disparaged using humor on film, Dr. Moutier is often cautious about its use with mental health topics. She notes “We never want to demean or make light of the painful aspects of living with a mental health condition. There is a way to use humor that is healthy and doesn’t make the person or their suffering di lei the object of humor, but allows the person to experience humor and lightness. It’s a hard thing to get right and demonstrates a very sophisticated level of experience or expertise with mental health. ” She uses one word for Oxford’s writing: outstanding.
Meghan Hooper, Executive Vice President and Head of Original Movies and Limited Series, MTV Entertainment Group, adds, “This movie is not an after school special or an issue movie. It’s a fun and entertaining coming of age story about a very strong young woman who happens to have anxiety and we go along that journey with her. So often this subject matter can be very serious, and that certainly has a place, but it’s nice to see it done in a way that leaves you feeling inspired, optimistic, and hopefully seen. ”
While, of course, not every viewer has had a panic attack or even anxiety, Oxford feels most people, especially this year, have had moments of spiraling out of control and can relate to Winona’s breakdown with her parents, in that way. She explains, “From what I’ve talked about with my friends and then read online, everybody’s kind of had a moment like that in COVID-19. And, I’m just hoping, when people see the movie, they can see themselves in it, and then, feel the hope afterwards. ” Others will find solace in the fact that Winona chose a different path, and lei is still OK and able to get through her life di lei. She adds, “We always show in films, everybody going off to college and people who are professionals who, you know, graduated from all these great places, and that’s nice and fine, and I guess it’s normal, but what about everybody else? “
In a year where anxiety rates have increased, with the largest increases in 18-29 year olds, Pink Skies Ahead is just the movie we need. It is a conversation starter and entertainment. It makes us laugh, and makes us think. And, using sophisticated mental health storytelling, it helps us know what symptoms to look for, how to talk about mental health with our family and friends, and even feel OK getting help if and when we need it, too.
Oxford explains, “I really think people who are feeling like something is off, watching this movie might help encourage them to go and see their doctor, whether or not it is a mental condition, or it is a physical condition … A lot of people have trepidation about going to see doctors at all and I really think showing that it provides hope, and it provides security, and it provides support is an important thing to portray in something that will reach an audience as large as this one. ”
And, lucky for us, Pink Skies Ahead is only just the beginning of destigmatizing media content on the horizon. It is part of MTV Entertainment’s Mental Health Is Health campaign, which aims to increase positive mental health storytelling. Hooper explains, “As a society we have been taught, often through media, that mental health is not something to talk about in public and we should feel shame around it, especially in underserved communities. We need to break that narrative. As storytellers we have an obligation to normalize the discussion and create more realistic portrayals of mental health, to stop contributing to the false narrative around the subject. “
Ideally, in the future, stories like Winona’s would be the norm, not the exception. For now, the bar is set really high. Watch on May 8th at 9 pm to see for yourself, and perhaps for the first time in a movie, you will feel seen, too.
The author of this piece has consulting work with ViacomCBS but does not work directly with the film or any of the people mentioned in this piece. She is a member of the Expert Advisory Council for the ViacomCBS Mental Health Storytelling Initiative and Co-author of the Mental Health Media Guide.