Movie review: Turning Red

(courtesy IMP awards)

You would think that, given the chaotic, messy make-up of human nature in general, that as a species, we’d been reasonably au fait by now with the idea that who we are, what we do, and the society we create, won’t always fit into neat and tidy boxes.

But … we are not.

Every facet of mainstream society, from religion to how we are supposed to behave in public to the right and proper way to comport ourselves even in private, all seem to come down to being ordered, neat and happily, easily existentially stackable.

Deviate from these expectations, whatever their source, and you might end up with the situation which unfurls in Pixar’s latest animated gem, Turning Red, in which a quirky, confident, rule-adherent protagonist, Meilin “Mei” Lee (Rosalie Chiang) discovers at the age of 13, with puberty grabbing her suddenly in its unexpected embrace, that she has an agency to be her own person, however that might manifest itself.

It’s scary as hell but also thrilling because after so much dutiful compliance, Meilin is suddenly in a position to explore the full extent of who she is as a person, and like all of us, not all of it is going to be neat and tidy, and much of it, by its exuberantly passionate nature, is going to be superbly messy.

Meilin’s evocative story does, of course, come with a uniquely distinct cultural flavour with her mother Ming Lee (Sandra Oh), and to a lesser extent her doting father Jin (Orion Lee) the guardians of an ancestral line that goes back multiple generations, one which revolves around Sun Ye, a woman with unspecified close connections to nature, and specifically red pandas.

Meilin never questions this connection, her only concern being to get great, nay stellar grades, to help out her mother in running the temple next to their home in 2002’s Toronto, and to be the best and most dutiful daughter she can be.

Then one morning, Meilin wakes up to discover that overnight she has metamorphised into a giant red panda and all hell breaks loose, with the once dutiful without question child suddenly plunged into a world of willful self-determination she never knew could be hers.

Like anyone born into such straitened circumstances – while the setting for Meilin’s story is a specifically Canadian-Chinese one, with all the strictures and expectations that traditionally come with it; director and co-writer Domee Shi (Bao) based the film one her own childhood experiences, burnishing its authentic representation of that community and early Noughties Toronto – Mei up to this point has never sought to push the overprotective envelope of her youth.

But as previous unspoken desires burgeon, with the most obvious being puberty with the film’s title being a barely-disguised reference to a girl getting her first period and the sizeable life changes that engenders (this has led to some controversy), Meilin begin to realise that perhaps has a lot more to recommend it than blind adherence to strict rules and regulations.

It’s a scary realisation; when you’re little there’s a great comfort and certainty from toeing the line and doing exactly and precisely what is expected of you every step of the way; but there are some, and this reviewer is one of them (who grappled with being gay in a Christian family where that was not part of the acceptable narrative), for whom the awakening of puberty helps makes sense of those parts of you that don’t fit happily into neatly-proscribed lines and which near beg to be let free and expressed authentically and in a way that will set you free.

Turning Red, and specifically Mei, is all about embracing the chaos and seeing where it’ll lead and not being afraid of that, with Mei observing to the audience at one point that “We’ve all got a messy, loud, weird part of ourselves hidden away, and a lot of us never let it out.”

It’s frightening to step outside the tightly-enforced lines since that’s often all we’ve ever known and Mei, like countless others before, does exactly push the boundaries well or with any kind of finesse but hey she’s 13 and that’s entirely to be expected.

In fact, you could argue it’s a rite of passage and one that Mei’s family have all gone through, all of them making choice at some point to tuck away the unruly, messy parts of themselves and play the parts that come with membership of their family.

That’s fine to some extent since filial observance, conscious caring about what others want or need and worrying about the needs of a wider community, whether it’s your family or society as a whole, is essential to a well-functioning world.

But there comes a point when what is demonstrably good can become imprisoningly bad, and while many people simply accept that as the price of becoming an adult, there are those like brave, feisty Mei who come to embrace the fact that life isn’t the same as it once was pr supposed to be and that’s okay.

Much of the exuberant relatable fun of Turning Red, like Inside Out before it, is watching Mei come to grips with how disruptive her full, non-compliant nature is and how it might dovetail in, not always elegantly and well, with the well-ordered world of her mother and wider family.

As Mei and her adorable group of friends – loyal singing tomboy Miriam Mendelsohn (Ava Morse), taciturn but heartfelt Priya Mangal (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) and vivaciously out-there Abby Park (Hein Park) – who love her and the key to her really owning who she is, warts and all, pursue what it means to be them, event in defiance of well laid-out expectations (with the usual deceit and sneaking around that comes with coming of age), Turning Red comes gloriously and messily into its resplendently charming and delightful own.

You can well understand why some people don’t like the film – it challenges the status quo in ways that they perceive as insubordinate and irredeemably terrible – but truth be told, Turning Red is a joyously good thing, a celebration of what it means to lose the fear of who you intrinsically are and to begin to approach life, with its unheard visits to karaoke joints and boy band concerts, in ways that are authentic to you.

That’s what growing up should be about, and while too many choose repressive compliance over liberating self honesty, there is a glorious liberation to owning your truth, in all its messy glory – this reviewer never looked back after coming out and wishes he’d had Mei’s eventual bravery to be unapologetically but lovingly and respectfully herself – and Turning Red celebrates that in ways that make you feel as if anything is possible when messy truth wins out over tidily and unthinkingly toeing the line.

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