Inside Out: Learning to Feel Again

I had thought Inside Out (2015) was a hockey movie. I was deep in late-stage alcoholism. There was hardly any way that I could get through a movie at the theater. I went because it had some alcohol there. I remember the pain of the trip there. Every time I would get into an Uber, the feeling of crushing uncertainty, the sharp, needle-like pain deep in my chest. Anytime not holding some alcohol was detrimentally painful. I showed up to the theater hurting already. I ran to the bathroom and threw up alcohol. We sat all the way in the back, made uncomfortable enough by their being kids there, needing to hide that I required a bag full of beers to even get through the thing. I could not be honest about my initial experience of Inside Out. It would be fair to say it turned my own heart inside out. As young Riley dealt with her sudden range of adolescent emotions, I realized that I never had. I remember going to the bar and saying not to see it, that I thought I was getting a hockey movie and got a bullshit movie about emotions. I didn’t need the movie, I needed therapy. Boy, did I miss out that first time.

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Inside Out. Dir. Pete Docter.

Because it’s one of Pixar’s best movies and the greatest visualization of emotion and feeling made to a metaphor that has been committed to a children’s film. I realize the extreme anger that was building inside. I could not handle at all when all of Riley’s interests fell away. I realized all the metaphorical islands of my own life had been replaced by Alcohol Island. That my singular emotional character was Fear. Imagination was left behind when I started abusing alcohol and hard drugs. Inside Out demands that the audience meets it at a functional level. I was not ready to deal with the emotions of this film, presumably for children, as a middle-aged adult.

I remember the feeling of coming out of my medically induced coma. I had to learn everything again. How to walk, and talk. I will never let go of that feeling of powerlessness and then the complete surrender that came with letting go of it. Through an extended rehab program, the main thing I had to go do was learn how to feel, often facing things for the first time. There was so much pain buried under years of self-abuse. Now, as a father, I’m in a unique position: to have died and been effectively reborn alongside my newborn daughter and to feel everything for the first time, alongside her.

In this sense, we are both three years old. I feel close to her in this way. That we got to develop some skills, like walking and speaking together. That I’ve steadily built up strength just as she rose to her feet for her first steps. Her favorite book as a baby was an Inside Out character flipbook. It only had enough pages for each character. I was still burying some pain and not ready to confront things. For a couple years, then, my total experience of this film was extended to a children’s flipbook. She would laugh hardily, as I’d exuberantly exclaim the character names like “Joy!”, and then like an amped-up Mortal Kombat announcer, proclaim “ANGEEEER” and “DISSSSGUST!” I could allow myself a more amplified vocal range when I showed my daughter these negative association words. I understood them. I had been living them for three decades. Words like “sadness,” I would have to hide beneath the facade of a different, sorrowful, but not true voice; not a word I yet understood or could pronounce with any kind of confidence that I knew what it meant, much less the hollowness of “joy,” only knowing that is what my daughter provided me.

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Inside Out. Dir. Pete Docter.

How can we explain something so difficult as emotion to kids, anyway? A little flipbook certainly helps, but then our curiosity and emotional attachment of the book routine meant we had to find out what these characters did. Only having one word to describe them was not enough for my Ezra. What is so beautiful about Inside Out is how it has rendered feelings into understandable visual metaphors. The hardest things to represent through art are feelings so closely and deeply felt that they just become intrinsic elements of human experience. The creative representation is what truly separates Pixar, our last remaining artists of deeply felt emotively driven films that still make it at the box office. They tap into all that movies used to be and all they can be and create the image larger than life, the representation not of the thing, but the feeling of the thing. It’s the manic pixie energy of Joy, or the turtle-necked somber attitude of Sadness, a ball of pain behind large glasses and a theater haircut.

My experience of the movie drastically changed after a proficient amount of recovery and enough time on a therapy couch. Where I was not ready to cry deeply at the theater, I savored the moment where our family cried together on the couch. We gave permission for each other to feel deeply, something we too often never allow for ourselves. One of the greatest gifts of recovery is getting to experience the full range of my daughter’s emotions at her level.

The genius of Inside Out is in the diner scene. The family has just arrived in San Francisco via Minnesota. It’s a great cinematic lesson of perspective. Each family member holds a mission control room in their heads. When it’s revealed the Dad’s are the same, but mustached, it’s a comedy moment, but also deeply felt. Everyone is just doing their best to relate and trying to respond the right way, to enrich the family. Or they are drifting off and just thinking about hockey. The emotions in the mom’s head say give the dad a sign. Show that their daughter is hurting, the dad’s feelings say it’s time to put his foot down, and Riley’s just want to get back to Minnesota, or at least to weather this frightening new development with the least amount of pain possible. This is some peak creative interpretation and about as clever as Pixar has ever been.

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Inside Out. Dir. Pete Docter.

The other visualizations are equally intricate and creatively conceived. The Imagination Islands represent all of Riley’s interests and aspects of her personality. They’re what “make Riley, Riley,” as the movie puts it. It has a way of simply saying what is so hard to say. Of showing us the inner workings of a person without saying this is how they feel. It is “say, don’t tell,” taken to a beautiful and illogical extreme. Then there are the memory banks. In a moment of profound genius, someone designed Riley’s core memories to be color-coded to match the emotional characters in her head. The whole impetus for action is that Sadness infects some valuable Core Memories meant to be happy, and she is joined by Joy on a quest to restore order to Riley’s mood. They walk through mazes of emotion, a hallway of past traumas and victories, establishing everything experience is stored away, and creates a kind of memory bank that ultimately manifests a DNA level structure of the personality we will become. Riley’s imaginary friend Bing Bong is the only clumsy metaphor to be found. I also used to see pink elephants, but again, it was a consequence of hallucinogenics. “Oh no,” Sadness says, “that is abstract thought.” She didn’t want to engage and neither do I.

It’s crucial as a family exercise to feel things deeply together. To share the experience of a movie makes it so much more than just about an evening on the couch. It means we share the same feelings. Like the moment at the dinner table, our own little emotional gremlins are running amuck in our heads. And sometimes they line up just right. Inside Out is Pixar understanding the purity of their overall usefulness, as a studio and as artists. They’ve created a meta-commentary that expresses what they are best at. They can reach all audiences with the same image and divine great feeling from everyone. They have a universal element of understanding. They not only love feeling and imagination, but seem to love helping open us up to both as well. I feel such a great admiration for the film and their work on it, and would suggest my earliest reaction was also powerful and explicit. Sometimes we’re not ready to feel on another wavelength. Sometimes it takes a little human to help us get there.

So, is it not a movie about hockey, after-all? The end of the movie finds Riley rejoining the team. She is venturing toward puberty. Her emotional layer has undergone such extreme depth and emotional growth, the control center itself has been expanded with all-new buttons. She has a powerful new range of emotions. In recovery, so do I. I have enough to teach them to my daughter. To understand them without traumatic fallout when they show on the screen. It is a movie about emotion. It is also a perfect hockey movie, in that any sports movie has more to do with a human interest story than the sport itself.  After, my daughter asked, could she have a pair of skates and a hockey stick. And that is how Inside Out became a cherished family movie and one that got me to feel.

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