Perhaps those abstract lessons of Inside Out are more important to a different audience — parents.
For months, I’d looked forward to seeing Pixar’s Inside Out with my daughter, Liddy. Amy Poehler and Mindy Kaling turning feelings into characters! Characters we could understand and laugh at and talk about! When you’re the parent of a nine-year-old girl who is caught up in the fierce turmoil of third-grade life, that is no small thing. Plus, you know, popcorn and Reese’s Pieces.
I brought Liddy and her friend Charlotte, and we loaded up on snacks and settled into our seats just as the previews were wrapping up. The movie is a quick ninety minutes, and none of us even took a bathroom break. We were enthralled. We all loved it as much as I’d hoped, and when it ended the girls talked, rapid-fire, about the antics of Joy, Fear, Anger, Sadness, and Disgust.
Even if you haven’t seen the movie, you may have heard by now (spoilers ahead) that Amy Poehler’s Joy works hard to keep the other emotions in check as they all pilot the day-to-day life of an eleven-year-old girl named Riley. Sadness (voiced by Phyllis Smith of The Office) proves especially challenging in this regard as Riley faces a big move, family stress and friendship challenges.
But in the end, Sadness proves her worth. Joy learns, the hard way, the lesson so many of us are still working on. Sadness is a part of life. Efforts to banish her, distract her or leave her in the past, no matter how creative, just won’t work. And it turns out Riley needs Sadness as much as she needs Joy, in order to get the help and support of the people who love her. Allowing space for Sadness means she doesn’t have to go it alone.
So what did Liddy and her friend make of all this? When I asked them how those battles between emotions worked out for Riley, and how they might play out in real lives, like theirs, they looked at each other and kind of shrugged.
“I’ve never really thought of little feeling-creatures in your head controlling you,” Liddy said, with a hesitant smile. She looked like she was afraid to disappoint me.
“But let’s say we did think about them that way,” I said. “Like, Fear, for example. I can think of times in my life when Fear is around, you know, making his list of worst-case-scenarios like he did to Riley in the movie.”
“Um. That’s just … weird,” the girls said, laughing.
Later, when Liddy said that Mindy Kaling’s Disgust was her favorite character, I tried to make the connection once more. I wondered aloud if she could remember a time she felt Disgust working in her own life, thinking she might mention something about her brother burping or stealing a gulp from her water bottle.
“Mom,” she said — gently, as if to suggest I was still missing the point. “It really just feels like characters in a movie.”
I shared this anecdote with a child psychiatrist I know, who laughed and said that it all sounded exactly right. She reminded me that, even heading into adolescence, kids are very concrete thinkers. They simply want to fall in love with characters and soak up a good story.
“But is there some way parents could talk with their kids about the movie, that might help them make those connections?”
“I think you can just let her enjoy the story for what it is,” she smiled.
She helped me see that perhaps those abstract lessons of Inside Out are more important to a different audience — parents. Because maybe, for some of us (cough cough), it’s not our kids who need to work on accepting their Sadnesses. It’s us.