Today I saw a movie that I can’t quite put into words. A movie that, in approximately 110 minutes, not only explains in the most brilliant of ways how our psyche works but how, in my opinion, depression can affect us to our very core.
Disney Pixar’s latest offering, Inside Out is about the ‘little voices inside your head’ as the tagline reads. But it’s so much more than that. It is a movie that does, quite extraordinarily, put into words emotions that we can’t always articulate for ourselves.
The movie is told through the eyes (or should I say, mind?) of an 11 year old girl called Riley as she moves to a new town and what it means for her emotionally. The five main emotions she experiences (the ones who ‘control’ her thoughts and feelings) are Joy (her lead emotion), Sadness, Anger, Disgust and Fear. And throughout the movie, we see how Riley’s everyday experiences need each of these in their own way.
It is said that whilst four of these emotions are ‘needed’ throughout life as they guide us and place boundaries etc, sadness is so often seen as ‘useless’; that there is no ‘point’ to being sad because it doesn’t serve a purpose and doesn’t get us anywhere but well, sad. Inside Out, I feel, changes that.
Up to the age of 11, Riley’s emotions are mainly controlled by Joy. Everything is fun, happy and a ‘great new experience’. But as Riley’s world changes and she begins to grow up, we start to see how her experiences and therefore emotions become more widespread; she is maturing enough to realise that not everything in life can and will make her happy. She is opening up to new emotions and their complex interplay.
But whilst Joy attempts to navigate Riley through this difficult time, Fear worries she’ll hate her new life, Disgust thinks her new bedroom is horrible and Anger just wants to get the hell out of there, Joy puts Sadness into a corner (or a chalk circle if you want to be more exact) and tries to ignore her. No matter what Sadness does, it never seems to be the right thing and Joy can’t quite understand why she can’t just be happy or positive like her.
And just as Joy begins to feel frustrated, proving that even ‘core emotions’ are still complex, Sadness touches a core memory (which have, up until this point, all been happy thanks to Joy) and changes it. She turns a happy core memory into a sad one and no matter what they do, they realise they can’t change it back. This is a key concept of depression; that we can be ‘so down’ that we taint our own memories through no fault of our own. Our depression changes a good memory to a sad one and try as we might, we just can’t get the original memory back. The ’emotional memory’ is well documented in psychological science; that we can change histrionics because of our ‘sad world view’. We can’t remember how good our birthday was when Sadness takes over and tells us that ‘we didn’t have as many friends as we thought we had’ despite enjoying the company of those who did come because they love us.
Joy is doing her best to guide Riley and be the strongest emotion of them all in ‘headquarters’ but suddenly, by accident Joy and Sadness end up ‘lost’ to long-term memory where they discover Riley’s old imaginary friend amongst others. And as Riley experiences a new school and gets used to her new surroundings, one by one her ‘worlds’ begin to crumble. ‘Goofy Island’ is the first to go because after all, she’s growing up and has no despire to make monkey sounds with her dad. And as Joy and Sadness continue to struggle to find their way home, the islands such a ‘friendship’ and ‘family’ disintegrate and we watch Riley become more distant, quiet and alone in her new surroundings. We see her struggle to make new friends, give up hobbies she’s loved for years and become angry with her parents because she doesn’t know how to feel.
All Joy wants to do is get back to headquarters to fix things but the more she tries, the more Sadness tells her its hopeless which only serves to exacerbate Joy who believes that only she can fix Riley. Through their journey they walk through ‘imagination land’ which explains abstract thought to the viewer, ‘dream productions’ with the obligatory ‘I’m falling’ poster on the wall, and even the subconscious where they ‘take all the troublemakers’ all whilst trying to avoid falling into the ‘memory dump’; the place that memories are forgotten forever.
Meanwhile Fear, Disgust and Anger are doing an abysmal job of keeping Riley going. They are, unfortunately, allowing each of her worlds to fall apart one by one and before we know it, we see Riley without feeling. She has no happy core or long-term memories to recall to feel better and despite the three remaining emotions all attempting, in their own way, to ‘think like Joy’; they fail and we see Riley become a shell of her former happy self; the very core of what severe depression feels like – it feels like ‘nothingness’. You simply drift through your day, week or month without conscious acknowledgement and smile where appropriate as ‘people need you to be happy’ because, just like Joy feels, no-one wants to deal with Sadness and her ‘depressing emotions’ all the time,
Through their journey, Joy sees Sadness as a ‘dead weight’, turning everything sad until she witnesses something beautiful; Sadness comforts Riley’s old imaginary friend and he becomes helpful again despite, moments before, being too sad to do so. And that is when Joy begins to see Sadness in a new light and not just a nuisance. She realises that acknowledging sadness doesn’t make it stronger and that it doesn’t always need to be fixed but rather, it needs to be acknowledged and comforted so that the person can feel better themselves and not just because someone told them to feel better.
I have never read a book or seen a movie before which so eloquently, yet in such simplistic and beautiful ways, explain this concept so well. I have spoken before about the need to have emotions acknowledged instead of fixed and I cried for Joy when she came to the realisation that whilst Sadness may not have been ‘useful’ in many conventional ways she had a very important reason for being there; without her, Joy could not work as well as she did. Again, this was a beautiful realisation for the characters to come to and an incredible lesson to teach the audience; that it’s ok to cry and need comfort to feel better. Towards the end of the movie, Joy and Sadness even share a core memory with the producers tipping their hats at the ‘Ying’ and ‘Yang’ of life.
The movie explained some of the most complex parts of our brain so simply yet visually and emotionally beautifully that it’s hard to imagine Disney Pixar could ever top this piece of psychological art. There were tears running down my face throughout the second half of the movie for the simple reason that I was watching my own emotions play out on screen. The realisation of how many memories that my own Joy created, only to have Sadness taint them. Even Fear, who worked perfectly throughout the movie to describe not only normal ‘fears’ but those created by utter panic (a great representation for those with anxiety) made me realise that he had his place in life.
The movie is supposed to be for children; to explain that each emotion has its own purpose and can compliment each other but I walked out of the cinema feeling as though I had just watched a visual representation of books from some of the greatest psychological minds in history.
These 5 little voices in our heads guide us, comfort us and can, without each others support, ruin us. But they will always find a way back to each other to complete us even if they each go off on their own journeys from time to time.
Their voices may be little but their message is loud and clear.