Turning Red

Turning Red ★★★½

I'm a little embarrassed, to be honest. I went into Turning Red assuming I wouldn't really connect on a personal level, that I would simply enjoy engaging in more general and universal themes in a gorgeously animated film that would hopefully be cute and funny and enjoyable. 

And then I spent a nominal chunk of time crying throughout it. 

What Domee Shi brings to the table for her first feature outing works on multiple levels. For those who dealt with overbearing parents, this is going to dig in and strike the heartstrings where it hurts. However, my parents were decidedly not. In fact, I grew up with almost too much agency -- and I have the report cards to prove it. No, I only witnessed friends being hemmed into overachieving and perfection as a lifestyle, groomed for careers they never wanted or living highly wholesome, sanitary, and incredibly curated childhoods. It's familiar, but it thankfully wasn't my life. 

Turning Red also, as has been talked about ad nauseam, brings a healthy dose of commentary against generational trauma. Watching Mei's mom shrivel at the news that her mother is calling feels familiar as well. It doesn't take a therapist to note the cause-and-effect relationships between the environment I was raised in as opposed to my parents. Again: almost too much agency, with endless support. You can and might love the people who hurt you, just like Mei loves her mom and her mom loves her own, but that will never diminish the hurt they caused in the first place. While others may criticize Shi's ending for lacking proper closure, this is sometimes truly the best we get -- you don't have to burn your bridges and forge your own path by yourself. If you're lucky, you can still have your loved ones by you once you've aired out your grievances and set boundaries. 

So then, what exactly was I crying about so often during Turning Red? I kept on searching and searching, until both conclusions struck me and I was suddenly bawling, my tissue mountain in the wastebasket growing embarrassingly larger by the second. 

Meilin wants to make everyone happy to the point of berating herself. I leave that as it stands, the point made short and sweet by itself in the film. She also just wants to express herself emotionally, unfettered, and without judgement. And as a kid that got (lovingly) chided for being too dramatic or emotional or excited on the regular, that hit hard, reaching into me somewhere that I hadn't quite been struck before. 

Like I wasn't a fortress or anything, but my husband found it weird when we were first dating that I would do all my crying alone, locked in the bathroom. It was clockwork -- the moment it got to be too much, I clammed up and took it out on myself emotionally, locked up in the bathroom. It's not like my parents or friends required this of me, but it was more me protecting myself from feeling like I was being an emotional burden on people I loved, even if I was excited rather than sad. Again, the people who hurt you may love you, and they may never have realized they hurt you, but that doesn't diminish that hurt in the first place. The fact that Mei chooses her panda, even fights for her panda, is so validating and endearing for a main character arc. 

So the plot is terrific and I now know why I need to get a new tissue box out of the pantry, and all that's left is why the heck this isn't an amazing movie when it's already great. 

First and foremost, it's easy to get a kick out of seeing our childhoods truly romanticized for the first time. Like, to a degree that I literally cannot be pressed about the presence of Ugg boots or Nokia brick phones -- items that are commonly associated with the 2000s, but might warrant a double take, seeing as these items easily cost a couple hundred bucks at the time the film takes place and are possessed by middle schoolers, no less. If one wanted to pick apart the little timeline oddities of the film, they'd have an easy enough time that the ritual would be more pedantic than usual. Bucket hats were back out of the trend cycle by the millennium, on the fast track back to hip-hop fashion micro trends where it would fully resurface 20 years later. "OMG" fares well with its first entry in Urban Dictionary coming in 2003, far better than "epic" in 2006. However, it's pleasant to just take in the scenery, a landscape of the early 2000's as dictated by TikTok's Y2K Aesthetic hashtag. You want my silly nitpick? Mei tells her dad that she'll erase the footage on her DV camcorder, but even this is hilariously reductive. 

This does, though, lend itself to the one major pitfall in Shi's first feature -- too much flash and not enough bang. The cast of Turning Red is well sketched and fill out the story with satisfying ease, but that's due in part to the film being a small, simple story that has room to grow in its cool 100 minute runtime. You could easily chop this down to a 90 minute feature as it stands, and still retain how it never condescends or aggrandizes its own story. There's just a bit too much indulgence for a story whose final straw on the back of the conflict-camel is someone realizing they misread a concert tour date. 

All that being said, Turning Red is an incredibly sweet and refreshingly heartwarming coming-of-age story that struck an unexpected chord... Also my 4*Town bias is Robaire but my bias-wrecker is Aaron Z.

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