Jan 17 2017

A Monster Calls is a tearful wonder


Feelings can seem like big, uncontrollable monsters. Especially for chlidren who have less experience and context with which to deal with traumatic events. In A Monster Calls a boy processes his mother’s fight with cancer and the changes that means to his life with the help of a large tree-like monster.

Conor is described as “not quite a boy and not quite a man.” He clings desperately to the hope that his mother will recover. He’s afraid of his distant and perfectionist grandmother. He’s afraid of being disappointed again by his father who has a new family in a new country. He’s afraid of the relentless bullies who make his life at school miserable. He’s afraid that his own conflicted feelings about his mom’s illness make him a bad person. No wonder he needs the strength of a monster to face everything he’s experiencing.

The cinematography creates a dreamlike, dark, and beautiful backdrop for Conor’s agony. There is this fantastic talking Yew tree creature in the middle of Conor’s brutal reality. Movies like this are a hard sell. It’s sad. The main character is younger than the maturity level it takes to really embrace the difficult themes. I compare the monster, and the film itself, to The Iron Giant. It’s visually appealing with a compelling story and a unique perspective that will probably draw a limited audience. Though it’s much more serious, I also see it as a sort of companion to Inside Out in that within it’s fantastical premise is an analysis of raw, authentic human emotion.

For me, the film is full of truth. Life is messy. Every character is flawed and hurt and angry and disappointed and loving all at once. These flawed people love each other and hurt each other at the same time. These are not perfect, selfless kind of heroes, but human and authentic, aching, vulnerable, selfish and miserable.  There is no hero or villain. There is no moment of victory. There is simply acceptance of the reality that is and realization that even in loss, love remains. 

Jul 12 2015

Inside Out: Emotional Intelligence made easy (at least to understand)


CONTAINS SPOILERS: Pixar’s Inside Out is about what goes on in our heads when we respond emotionally to experiences. Writer/directors Pete Docter and Ronnie del Carmen tell a familiar story to which anyone can relate in a way that offers insights and causes personal introspection beyond anything we might expect from an animated “kid’s” movie. I’ve never seen a story told in exactly this way. It’s refreshing.

Mostly set inside 11-year old Riley’s brain, the animated film deals with the stress brought on by change and the conflict we experience when we try to respond the way we think we are supposed to respond rather than expressing our authentic emotions. Five emotions, Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust, are characters in Inside Out who help her process the experience of moving.

Inside Out suggests that we not categorize our emotions as “good” and “bad.” The story is told from the point of view of Joy, voiced by Amy Poehler, who understands that Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Fear (Bill Hader) can help us avoid danger, and Anger (Lewis Black) can inspire positive change but cannot see that Sadness, voiced by Phyllis Smith (The Office) has a purpose. Joy believed there was something wrong if Riley’s dominant emotion was not always joy.

The crisis in Inside Out is that Riley’s perspectives and identity are threatened by the toll taken both by stressing over this big change in her life and by hiding her true feelings about it because she does not want to disappoint her parents. Action in the film switches between scenes depicting the effects of Riley’s crisis on her emotions, her memories, and her identity, and scenes of Riley interacting in her new environment. The animation inside Riley’s brain is richly colored and complex while the scenes outside are simpler, with more muted tones.

While the way the brain works in the film doesn’t jive completely with brain research and psychology, it does a good job of showing the connections between emotions, identity, and memory. The different ways in which Riley gains identity: family, friends, sports, goofball, and honesty are represented as her Islands of Personality, while her memories are represented by balls colored by different emotions. The memories that define her perspective and outlook are represented as “core memories.”

Memory science indicates the way we process and retain memories is somewhat messier, but the idea that we reframe memories is borne out by research. Turns out the observer effect applies to our memories. Every time we remember something we change the memory a bit. As we mature our brains develop the ability to engage in abstract thinking, which allows us to process our experiences in a more nuanced way.  We come to recognize and acknowledge the mixed emotions that come with the complexities of human experiences.

Sadness is the heroine of the film. She displays empathy and authenticity. Her healing message is that grieving loss is a valid emotional response. Listening and validating another’s feelings, and “mourning with those who mourn” is powerful and helpful. Because Riley does not give herself permission to say “I am sad, I am hurting. I need comfort,” her Islands of Personality begin to collapse under the tension of trying to feel what she thinks her parents want her to feel and the need to express her authentic feelings about her struggle with moving. Riley acts out until she is able to acknowledge her sadness.

Self-awareness and truthful, authentic responses that come out of that self-awareness are important to emotional health and maturity, and to spiritual maturity. If our identities are rooted and grounded in the love of Christ, we know that the “islands” of grace and hope cannot collapse. This understanding allows joy to mix into the other emotions we experience, but many of us Christians feel we must put on a happy face all the time because we think it’s what God expects, or that this mask of happiness will attract others to faith. Jesus would never have promised and provided a Comforter if we weren’t going to need one. He would never have let himself be called “Man of Sorrows” if God expected unfettered joy. Honest emotional responses help us to develop empathy for others because we, like our High Priest, are able to be touched with “the feelings of infirmities” that we all experience. To everything there is a season and when it’s time to weep, we will be emotionally and spiritually healthier if we let sadness take the lead.