Flicks With Nicki – Turning RedNicki Salcedo. Photo by Fox Gradin.
We are afraid of talking about blood. The blood in our bodies. The blood that is proof of family. The blood bond of friendship. Blood is a delicate thing. Like our emotions, it runs from cold to hot. It starts off blue, then turns red.
Pixar’s “Turning Red” shows us that coming of age is a special turning of its own. For 13-year-old Meilin, age is more than a number. Age is freedom, adulthood, and a transformation into a magical red panda. At first, we wonder if being a shapeshifter is a hallucination. Or maybe it’s a metaphor for menstrual cycles. Likely both, but becoming a red panda is also literal. The women in Meilin’s family carry the red panda trait. A power that only reveals itself at the start of adolescence.
Mei (Rosalie Chiang) has lived her life as the perfect daughter and student. She is surrounded by three great friends. Miriam (Ava Morse) is the tomboy. Priya (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) is the stoic one. Abby (Hyein Park) is enthusiastic and assertive. Though they are different, they love each other and share a fondness for the ethereal boy band 4*Town. Mei’s growing awareness of real boys causes trouble with her conservative mother, Ming (Sandra Oh). A fight ensues. Mei is embarrassed, hurt, and angry. In the morning, she’s turned into a giant red panda.
Unlike becoming a cockroach or fly, turning into a red panda is sort of fun. Her friends think it’s cool. She’s warm and fluffy. For a fee, Mei can be the life of the party. This is way funnier than reading Kafka.
Writer and director Domee Shi knows about being a 13-year-old girl. The joys of having best friends. The thrill of noticing cute boys. The exhausting pressure of being perfect when you just want to be silly and have fun.
Mei shouts at her mom, “I like boys. I like loud music. I like gyrating.”
Me, too. That was me at 13. Honestly, that’s still me today.
Mei learns to control the inner beast by focusing on the positive relationship she has with her girlfriends, But she lies about wanting to go to a concert. And she lies about how she’s learned to control the beast inside her. She’s told there’s a way to stop the red panda forever with the help of her grandmother and aunties. But Mei doesn’t want to give it up. And why should she have to? The complication comes when she must make a choice. A choice all the women before her made. Mei must find out the truth about her mother and grandmother and the beasts inside them.
Instead of being taken into a magical land or castle, we are transported to Toronto in the year 2002. As good a place and year as any for magic. Somehow enjoying parties, liking boys, and having menstrual cycles are still taboo subjects. But becoming a red panda is reasonable.
The joy in watching “Turning Red” was seeing my feelings from age 13 transcribed into film. My awkward crushes and cringeworthy diary. Y’all, I still have the diary. And I named names. I was a tomboy who loved boys. All of them.
My joy was remembering the great friends that shaped me then and now. We had so much fun. And we had so many funny names for our menstrual cycles.
“Did the red peony bloom?” Ming asks. Every woman who’s had a period knew what Mei’s mother was alluding to. Aunt Flo. The Crimson Wave. Being on the rag. If this causes you to clutch your pearls, should I remind you that the rest of the conversation includes sanitary napkins called pads, understanding tampons, considering the use of cups, period panties, and (heaven forbid) birth control pills. Maybe we didn’t have these conversations on the first day of a first period. But the conversation is coming. The controversy is that the film is not about menstrual cycles at all, but emotions.
Sometimes our kids, like Mei, get angry. Deep down fiery red mad at the world, their friends, and us. Parents. Sometimes they are frustrated and sad in ways they can’t articulate. Me, too. Yes, these feelings are tied to hormones, but they are also tied to the events we see in the world and pressure we feel to succeed. I’d rather turn into a giant red panda. It seems easier. More fun. More laughs.
My complaint with “Turning Red” is found with the mother Ming. There are two choices in movies. Dead mom or bad mom. Ming should have been the most sympathetic to Mei’s transformation and feelings. She had her own moments of rebellion and disappointing her mother. Instead, we see a one-dimensional over the top tiger mom. With all the wonderful girl power of friendship, I would’ve like to see some of that translated to the mother-daughter relationship. It was the only time “Turning Red” had me feeling blue.
Even though it wasn’t perfect, “Turning Red” was good. It was true and honest. It made me laugh. The animation was a combination of tradition Pixar with nods to anime. When excited the characters would go doe-eyed with stars. It was a pleasure to watch. And it turns out the red isn’t about blood after all. Turning red is our emotions. Our passion for life. The love of friends is red. Blood would be too easy. And if you remember, being 13 was not easy. But it sure was fun. Grade B-
Nicki Salcedo is a Decatur resident and Atlanta native. She is a novelist, blogger, and a working mom.