by Kayla McCulloch on Oct 26, 2020

When the full scope of the Covid-19 pandemic began to come into focus in the early months of 2020, the fate of the film-festival experience wasn’t exactly on the forefront of everyone’s mind. For some, the cancellation of festivals such as South by Southwest and Cannes didn’t even register. For others, the loss was an upsetting but necessary sacrifice in hopes of saving lives and ensuring safety for all. For blogger-turned-Tweeter-turned-scriptwriter Kelly Oxford, it was just another roadblock in a long journey riddled with such obstacles. (More on that journey in a bit.) Her directorial debut, Pink Skies Ahead, was set to premiere at SXSW, but its fate was thrown into uncertainty (along with everyone and everything else) when the virus hit. It’s the type of setback that might have pushed the film’s semi-autobiographical lead over the edge.

Los Angeles, 1998. Winona (Jessica Barden) is in pain. For a 20-year-old college dropout with bright blue hair and a pitch-black attitude, this kind of pain — right under her armpit, stabbing and throbbing in a way armpits shouldn’t — is as serious as a mortal wound. Needless to say, she’s worried. As she sits on the waxy, crinkling paper of her disarmingly compassionate pediatrician, Dr. Cotton (Henry Winkler), he assures Winona that her pain isn’t a cause for concern but her worry is. He doesn’t mince words: She has an anxiety disorder, and she should see a therapist. For a girl like her — a rebellious, freewheeling young woman who spends her days getting drunk, getting high, getting in trouble, and getting out of responsibilities with her friends (Odeya Rush and Rosa Salazar) — he might as well be advising her to move out of her parents’ house, secure a “real job” (no more of that poetry she loves to write), marry a doctor, birth a litter of kids, and submit to the status quo for good.

As it happens, there are already some elements of dreaded adulthood in the framework of Winona’s life: As her parents feebly attempt to tell her, they’re going to be selling the house soon to travel the world, and she will need to start searching for her own apartment. She also (sort of) has the desk-job part down, earning a paycheck every other week for sitting and doing nothing in her cubicle at her father’s business. Surprisingly, she’s even dating a doctor — if working on a Ph.D. in philosophy makes Ben (Lewis Pullman) a doctor, that is. Whether she realizes it or not, she’s been stumbling toward adulthood one misstep at a time for a while now. It’s her long-undiagnosed anxiety disorder that’s holding her back from full realization. The further she pushes treatment back, choosing instead to continue her downward spiral, the more terrifying that full realization becomes.

To put it lightly, Winona is not a pleasant person to spend 90-ish minutes with. From her abrasive personality to her confrontational nature to her cringe-inducing outbursts, this character doesn’t demonstrate the heart, the wit, or the charm of her contemporaries in the burgeoning female-centric, West Coast-set coming-of-age genre (at least for the first two acts or so). Where Edge of Seventeen (2016), Lady Bird (2017), and Booksmart (2019) rely on the sincerity of their leads, Pink Skies Ahead doubles down on Winona’s nastiness and causticity. Winona is well aware of her contemptibility, and she actually chooses to embrace it for much of the film. Time and time again, adults with lived experiences try their hardest to level with her. Time and time again, she ignores them. This is (of course) credited to her unnamed anxiety disorder, which makes each refusal to seek help all the more distressing to watch. Although the mental health of others is discussed generally and occasionally in the film’s first hour, it’s not until later that writer-director Oxford really digs into Winona’s health. This is a fatal structural flaw.

Brutally honest depictions of therapy and unapologetically stylized takes on what it’s like to suffer from anxiety attacks are what separate Pink Skies Ahead from its aforementioned peers, but these are too few and far between to truly make this film a standout. Given the fact that Winona is more or less a true-to-life depiction of Oxford in her early 20s — and the story is purportedly based on one of the director’s essays — it’s possible that the script suffers from a screenwriter who’s just way too close to the work they’re adapting. In someone else’s hands, frivolous had-to-be-there scenes of Winona and friends — no doubt based on Oxford’s own experiences — could be exchanged for meaningful explorations of Winona’s inner conflict. Alternatively, this closeness actually ushers in a remarkable style that clearly came straight from Oxford’s recollection of her past. For all its issues with pacing and character, Pink Skies Ahead does present the viewer with some memorable imagery and an appealing ’90s pastiche — complete with quintessential jokes about Friends (1994-2004) and Felicity (1998-2002) grounding it firmly in the back half of the decade.

Despite its distinctive look and its (somewhat rudimentary) focus on mental health, Oxford’s debut will likely never be able to escape comparisons to Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird. Either film could be faithfully described as “a British actress with a colorful dye job plays a quippy and artistic Gen X California native on the brink of adulthood who befriends a bad influence played by Odeya Rush, struggles to get along with her neurotic-but-adoring parents, and repeatedly fails to learn her lesson.” Some may claim that Oxford couldn’t help having an upbringing similar to Gerwig’s, but this isn’t exactly correct: As a native of Canada, Oxford’s choice to uproot her own origin story and move it to Los Angeles is a decision that opens itself up to these sorts of criticisms. It’s disappointing, especially when there’s plenty of material here that could’ve been reshaped and refocused into a first feature as fresh in its substance as it is in its style.

Rating: C

Pink Skies Ahead was reviewed from a virtual screening at AFI Fest 2020. A release date for the film has not yet been announced.