In first-time director Kelly Oxford’s snappy, super-saturated account of her personal battle with anxiety disorder, “Pink Skies Ahead,” the main character is named Winona, but it’s her best friend Stephanie who does all the shoplifting. It’s like a compulsion: Every time they go to the convenience store, Winona distracts the awkward, androgynous-looking clerk behind the counter while Stephanie roams the candy aisle, filling her pockets. Then they both buy Slurpees (only, the movie calls them “Freezers”) to cover their tracks.
This is behavior that would be right at home in high school — or a high school movie, like “Ghost World,” which might explain Winona’s Slurpee-blue dye job — when young people are testing the boundaries of what they can get away with and still largely oblivious to how their actions impact others. But Winona is a 20-year-old college dropout, embodied by “End of the F—ing World” star Jessica Barden, who’s a few years older still, even though she looks barely old enough to drive.
The fact Barden looks younger is fitting, since Winona still hasn’t managed to pass her driving test, and freaking out behind the wheel of her car will become one of the movie’s running motifs. It’s also an apt metaphor for Winona’s recurring failure to accomplish the basic responsibilities of adulthood — which is surprisingly relatable, whether you’re Oxford’s age (early 40s) or a member of what “Can’t Even” author Anne Helen Petersen has dubbed the “burnout generation.”
The Los Angeles-set “Pink Skies Ahead” takes place in 1998, but the pressures Oxford describes have only become more acute in the two decades since. (Something else that’s happened in the intervening time is the rise of social-media stars, and Oxford’s own ascension follows in the footsteps of writers such as Diablo Cody and Marti Noxon, who make her high-attitude voice seem almost tame by comparison.) In the opening scene, Winona loses patience with herself after motormouthing her way through a stop sign, yelling, “How come everyone else in the world can talk and drive, and I can’t? What is wrong with me?!”
“Wrong” is probably the wrong word. Winona goes through the entire film pingponging between learning to accept what makes her abnormal and refusing to admit there’s anything the matter with her, and while that sounds like a very unstable mindset to be juggling, it amounts to an incredibly refreshing take on the coming-of-age movie (adapted from the most personal essay, “No Real Danger,” found in Oxford’s book “When You Find Out the World Is Against You”). After all, what is adolescence but a time when no one feels normal, and we’re all trying to decide whether that’s even something we want for ourselves?
With her radioactive coif and precocious repartee, Winona couldn’t care less about fitting in. She quit her college writing program not because she couldn’t hack it, but because the whole thing felt like a waste of time to her, a hustle to achieve someone else’s idea of success. Now she’s living back at home with her folks, positive thinker Pamela (Marcia Gay Harden) and nearly catatonic dad Richard (Michael McKean), who’ve decided to downsize to a smaller apartment, meaning that Winona will need to find her own place.
No wonder her doctor (Henry Winkler) worries that Winona might have an anxiety disorder. In “No Real Danger,” Oxford explains that she’d been seeing the same (female) doctor about three times a week for nearly her entire life, but the reinvention of Dr. Cotton as a bemused older dude — a nonjudgmental pediatrician who humors her unwillingness to see an adult doc — is one of Oxford’s most inspired choices. Generally speaking, she’s not overly precious in adapting her essay, and for all we know, there’s actually more of the author in this stylized retelling.
Vibe-wise, the movie has the sugar-bomb look and cracked-out energy of a children’s breakfast cereal commercial. The period setting feels awfully pastichey, blending design influences from the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s (though the music seems era-appropriate), while Winona exudes a near manic level of energy, which Barden channels into the character’s constantly animated facial expressions. Contrast this performance with the relatively blank-faced one she gives in “Holler,” and the difference is night and day. (Both films were supposed to debut in competition at SXSW, and are better than “S—house,” the film that won, but audiences can now see what a super-talent Barden is.)
It’s perhaps not the biggest surprise that Winona is dealing with a mental health situation — not that either the actor or her film fall back on any of the tired “crazy person” movie tropes. “Pink Skies Ahead” aims to destigmatize Winona’s diagnosis, while giving audiences living with anxiety issues a positive point of reference. When her panic attack does come, it’s nothing like we’ve seen on-screen before, and for those who’ve been in Winona’s shoes, watching such a portrayal amounts to feeling seen, maybe for the first time. Even though Oxford doesn’t follow a standard plot, the anecdotal film’s lived-in details ought to do for 2020 audiences what “Garden State” did a generation earlier — when the world’s solution to such feelings was to over-medicate. Now it’s more about acceptance.
True to the genre, over the course of 90-odd minutes, Winona’s goal is to grow up just enough. Lately, she’s been whiling away her days working for her dad, then spending her evenings at the bar with partners-in-crime Stephanie (Odeya Rush) and Addie (Rosa Salazar), dating dudes with neck tattoos. During the movie, she tries going out with a more “normal” guy in Ben (Lewis Pullman), a sweet but boring Ph.D. candidate, and starts to look for a more engaging job. But there’s no pressure on Winona to fix everything in her life, and the movie doesn’t hold her to mainstream notions of success. The idea is simply to show progress. The catchy title’s a clever way of saying “It gets better,” and in the end, that feels as true for Winona as it does for the high-potential writer-director who created her.