'Pink Skies Ahead': Film Review | AFI 2020

Courtesy of Stampede Ventures
A refreshing spin on Mumblecore tropes.

Jessica Barden stars alongside Marcia Gay Harden and Henry Winkler in Kelly Oxford's coming-of-age/stoner comedy.

Kelly Oxford’s debut feature Pink Skies Ahead is the kind of coming-of-age comedy that is destined for cult status, if not full-on indie success. It has all the necessary ingredients of an upper-middle-class coming-of-age comedy: a young woman trying to find herself, a pair of worried, coddling parents, and a crew of comical friends. Additionally, the film takes place in 1998, so there’s a healthy dose of comforting nostalgia with welcome needle-drops from the likes of Hole and The Smashing Pumpkins.

Pink Skies Ahead tells the story of Winona (Jessica Barden), an anxious young woman who wants to drop out of school after her first semester. She’s a creative writing student who finds it difficult to write, and worries if going to school was a mistake. The film begins with Winona failing her driver’s test, followed by a walk of shame back to her parents’ house in the valley. Her mother (Marcia Gay Harden) and father (Michael McKean) are kind-hearted but confused by their daughter’s stagnation.

With her electric blue hair, tights and miniskirts, Winona is a fascinating, stylish and often confident person. But she’s also the kind of person who thrives at parties but feels anxious and paralyzed when facing challenges alone. Whenever she feels overwhelmed, she retreats to her childhood doctor’s office with an imaginary illness. In a scene reminiscent of My Girl, Winona meets with her doctor (Henry Winkler), who quickly diagnoses her with an anxiety disorder.

Ignoring her diagnosis, Winona quickly falls into old patterns — getting high all the time and dating whatever guy who comes along. Braden is hilarious as Winona, shining in the scenes of her character drugged up and goofing off. It’s rare to see female stoners onscreen, and Oxford does a great job of portraying both the fun and silliness of these moments. A scene later in the film in which Winona and her party girl friend Stephanie (Odeya Rush) take mushrooms and fall asleep on a blanket in the park is genius in its simplicity.

As the film goes on, we get to know her anxiety as it begins to slowly spin out of control, with her other best friend Addie (Rosa Salazar) urging her to go to therapy and find out what to do with the rest of her life. But every time Winona is alone too long, she either goes on a date or gets high. The film shows us this behavior without condemnation, acknowledging how normal it is for a lot of young women. Winona feels lonely, even with her friends; it's a feeling that's painfully real for so many of us. 

But right when it seems like she’s about to get control of her life, Winona finds a seemingly solid guy: Ben (Lewis Pullman), a polite Ph.D. student excited by her humor and style. And for a short while, it seems like the film is going in the direction of Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child — a tender romance in which opposites attract, with the male love interest becoming a grounding presence in the heroine’s life. But instead, the film takes a different, more interesting turn.

There’s something distinctly familiar about Pink Skies Ahead. This kind of storytelling has always been around — The Graduate is an early example — but it wasn’t until the indie genre Mumblecore became popular in the late 2000s that it morphed into its current form, defined by films like Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha and Mistress America. In the decade since Lena Dunham’s feature directorial debut Tiny Furniture, the form has grown somewhat mainstream, eventually evolving toward a female equivalent of the slacker comedies of the 90s. Pink Skies Ahead takes Mumblecore tropes and transforms them by amping up the comedy and sight gags. More self-aware than Tiny Furniture, less acidic than Mistress America, the movie manages to walk a fine line between loving Winona and making her the butt of the joke.

Pink Skies Ahead excels most when it dissects the behavior of its lead, enriching its mainly light comedy with character study. It’s about holding on to parents and high-school friends for dear life out of fear of doing anything that would lead to radical change. And, more pointedly, it’s a film about anxiety, putting a name to a disorder that so many of us struggle with. It’s easy to look at a person’s choices and see a slacker who refuses to grow; it’s much harder to accept that there can be real chemical barriers to emotional, physical and financial independence. 

Venue: AFI Fest (Special Presentation)
Production companies: Stampede Ventures, Divide/Conquer, Foton Pictures, Glanzrock Productions
Cast: Jessica Barden, Rosa Salazar, Lewis Pullman, Odeya Rush, Michael McKean, Marcia Gay Harden, Henry Winkler, Evan Ross
Producers: Greg Gilreath, Adam Hendricks, Greg Silverman, Lisa Zambri
Executive producers: Carlos Cusco, Andrew Davies Gans, Zac Locke, Emerson Machtus, Gideon Yu
Director of photography: Charlie Sarroff
Music: Adrian Galvin, Ariel Loh
Production designer: Courtney Andujar, Hillary Andujar
Costume designer: Romy Itzigsohn
Editor: Sarah Beth Shapiro
Art Director: Mary Florence Brown
Casting: Jennifer Presser, Caitlin Well

94 minutes