Earlier this week, I took my little sister to see Inside Out, a film I had been eagerly anticipating since the first news came out about its production. This is the third time this year that I’ve shown Marissa a movie that made her cry, but it’s probably the first time that the tears stemmed from something that directly applied to her daily life and sense of self. (For the record, the other two movies were Selma and Jurassic Park.)
Inside Out follows the emotions inside the head of Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), an eleven year-old girl who is coping with a move from Minnesota to San Francisco. Although her parents ask her to stay strong and be their happy girl, Riley has complicated emotions about the situation. Specifically, Joy (Amy Poehler) is trying her best to keep Riley upbeat, while Sadness (Phyllis Smith) keeps touching Riley’s memories, making her blue. Meanwhile, Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black), and Disgust (HRH Mindy Kaling) have a lot to say about San Francisco in general.
Inside Riley’s head, there are core memories that support “islands” of her personality, such as Hockey Island, Family Island, Honesty Island, and Friendship Island. These core memories are at the heart of who Riley is. While trying to keep Sadness from touching the core memories (after Riley cries in school, creating a core memory that was not controlled by Joy), Joy accidentally gets the memories, Sadness, and herself sent to Long Term Memory. She must get back to the control center and restore the memories or else Riley won’t be herself, or happy, again.
Be the Happy Girl
Not discounting that gorgeous opening sequence from Up, Inside Out may be Pixar’s smartest, most mature film yet. What I especially appreciate is the way the narrative actually focuses on a fairly common experience–a big move–and makes it an epic journey by following Riley’s emotions. At its heart, the film is about a girl navigating complicated feelings. There’s a lot that someone could do here with Affect Theory and the way this story presents and anthropomorphizes emotion. Additionally, the narrative touches, lightly but significantly, on the pressure that is put on particular emotions over others. Riley is asked by her mother to be her happy girl, in an attempt to help Riley’s father not be so stressed about his new job. On one hand, this emphasis on happiness in the face of change is pretty common in both parenting and contemporary culture, in which good thoughts and a good attitude are supposed to overcome all obstacles. On the other hand, there is a gendered nuance to the expectation for Riley to be happy and joyful, even when the move has taken away her favorite places and people.
Sadness and Joy
But, importantly, these expectations about the value of Joy over Sadness set the stage for Joy to see the value in Sadness. Sadness is able to comfort people by hearing them out or by drawing those who love them close. Sadness has important insights. And, as it turns out, Sadness is often close to Joy’s favorite memories. Joy and Sadness are the team at the heart of the action and as Joy learns to see Sadness as valuable, it becomes clear that Sadness was not messing up by turning Riley’s memories sad, she was an important part of the moving process. By preventing Riley from feeling sad, Joy just left her stuck with Anger, Fear, and Disgust, unable to cope with what she was feeling or to lean on her parents. The action and the metaphor work beautifully together. It’s a fairly nuanced lesson about emotions that I think opens a door for talking about mental and emotional health, balance, honesty, and coping mechanisms. (See more below)
On a personal note, I am a Midwestern girl about a month away from moving to the San Francisco Bay Area. I have my own mixed emotions and this movie just made me weep openly in a way that was cathartic and helpful and pleasing.
The Upgraded Controls
So, once the conflict of the film is resolved, Riley’s feelings get an upgraded control panel that allows them to work together. She can experience more than one emotion at once and her memories reflect that. The process of opening up about her sadness and allowing it to affect her joy enables Riley to mature and be joyful again. I thought that was a pretty realistic way of closing the film. There can’t be much real resolution, given that Riley is only 12 (“What could happen?”), but it sets the stage for Riley’s emotions to continue to evolve and for adults and kids to think about their own “control panels.”
Discussion Questions for Kids (And Other Movie Buddies)
I think one of the best parts about Inside Out is how it creates a space for talking about emotions and how we understand and react to them. Possibly because the action of the film is so minimal on Riley’s part, it could be easy for kids and other viewers to insert themselves into Riley’s position, or to think about what might be going on inside their own heads in experiences in which they have mixed emotions. Here are some possible discussion questions for after viewing the film, some of which were asked of me by my little sister:
- Why do you think Joy and Sadness were the first two emotions?
- Which emotions do you think most control how you react to things?
- What is disgust? Describe a time when you felt disgusted.
- What are you most afraid of? How might Fear react to your nightmares?
- What makes you angry? Why?
- Describe a time when you had mixed emotions. Can you imagine what the conversation between those emotions would be?
- Was if fair for Riley’s mom to ask her to be happy for her dad?
- What are the islands of your personality? What are some core memories that you think shaped who you are?
- Do you have a memory that used to be happy, but now you feel sad about? Why? How do our feelings about events change over time?
- Do you think people like some emotions more than others? What does that tell us about how people expect us to behave? Is it okay to act differently?
- Is there a time in which you expressed emotions and were embarrassed by them? Why were you embarrassed? Is it okay to be vulnerable?
- What was your favorite part of Riley’s brain? Why?
- How did the different parts of the brain work together to create Riley’s experience of the world?
- What are some moments in the film in which feelings lead to conflict? How might the conflict have been avoided or resolved?
- How does Riley grow at the end of the film? How does Joy grow? What about Mom and Dad?
- Is there a reason for the gendering of certain emotions? (Why are Joy, Sadness, and Disgust female and Anger and Fear male?) Are there stereotypes present in the film’s depiction of emotion?
- Do you have any questions about emotions, how to express them, or how to cope with them?