Kelly Oxford’s ‘Pink Skies Ahead’ brings positive mental health depictions to the fore at AFI Fest

In 1998, Canadian author and filmmaker Kelly Oxford was 19 when she was diagnosed with anxiety disorder. In 2020, she’s putting that experience on screen to help others.

Oxford’s writing/directing feature debut, “Pink Skies Ahead” – now playing as part of the virtual AFI Fest – is a coming-of-age dramedy about a talented, blue-haired 20-year-old writer named Winona (Jessica Barden) who drops out of college and is trying to figure out her future while also dealing with her mental health and the onset of panic attacks. Oxford based it on an essay she wrote called “No Real Danger,” which marked the first time she shared her personal experience with anxiety.

“There aren’t any films that talk about this and so many who live it, so I wanted to get it on screen so I could get more eyes, more people being seen, more people being heard,” Oxford said as part of an AFI panel about centering on characters with mental health conditions in film and TV. The panel was moderated by Stacy L. Smith of the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative.

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Oxford wants people to see themselves in Winona “if they have an issue dealing with anxiety and not feel so confused and alone like I did,” she said. Part of the reason she set the move in 1998 was because “at least now you can Google ‘anxiety disorder’ when you get home after your doctor tells you have one. … I just was like, ‘Something’s going to happen to me?!’ ”

Hopefully, she added, the movie “will inspire them to realize there’s a huge, large community who felt like them and are completely capable in their everyday lives and just have this thing they have to deal with. You can have a career and have kids and everything can be fine. But when you’re 20, you don’t know that.”

According to a 2019 Annenberg report, less than 2% of all characters across 100 top-grossing films are shown with a mental health condition, even as close to 20% of Americans every year experience some form of it.

“As much as science is growing and shedding light on how the brain works and how mental health plays out for human beings, nothing will compare to how media and entertainment has a role in changing culture with regard to any complex and especially formerly stigmatized topics that there’s a lot of taboo around,” said Christine Moutier, a chief medical officer for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Noopur Agarwal, vice president of social impact for the ViacomCBS Entertainment and Youth Group, said mental health is “a priority” in their storytelling across various networks, and unscripted shows like MTV’s “Teen Mom” and VH1’s “Love & Hip-Hop” emphasize “how to use organic story lines and encourage help-seeking.” (“Pink Skies Ahead” was acquired by MTV Studios on Friday before its world premiere and will be released next year.)

Moutier works as a consultant with content creators in tackling mental health, including “ways of doing it safely, meaning without any element of either suicide contagion risk or further stigmatizing mental health experience” as well as curbing “dehumanizing” language like “commit suicide,” which implies a crime. Oxford, though, admitted that she didn’t reach out to any outside experts to craft “Pink Skies Ahead”: “I considered it, but I really thought that if I did more research, I would lose the feeling of Winona by adding more information that she didn’t have.”

Barden, who also has had experiences with panic attacks and “felt a lot of responsibility” in depicting one on screen, would like to get rid of the stereotype that a person with anxiety is quiet or nervous. Even for extroverts, “there’s a whole other private narrative happening in your head that’s just so hard to deal with. You can be the person who says, ‘Let’s go do karaoke after this,’ but at the same time you can just be walking around thinking you have cancer all the time and you don’t know why. And that’s totally OK.”

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