Inside Out is one of those films where you will hear adults sobbing in the audience. Job well done, Pixar. Numerous articles have already come out about the psychology behind the film and why the best character is the one left out of marketing, so I’m not going to talk about those. Instead I want to focus on how the film dealt with mental illness.
We champion Frozen as some pillar of achievement, especially because Elsa is often seen as a symbol of depression and anxiety. Inside Out took this exploration into mental illness a step further. When Riley loses Joy, Sadness, and her core memories, she exhibits symptoms of depression and doesn’t know what to do.
I’m going to start with a quick explanation of Core Memories, something the film makes up for the sake of storytelling. In Inside Out, Riley has about five very strong, powerful memories that supposedly make her who she is. One moment where she’s goofing off with her mom and dad is singled out as the genesis of the ‘goofball’ facet of her personality. Her scoring a goal makes up her love of hockey, another of her walking hand in hand with her best friend to symbolize her love of friendship. You get the point. These memories are stored in their own area and are very, very important.
When Joy and Sadness have an argument and are ejected from Headquarters, it so happens all of Riley’s core memories go with them, hence destroying the facets of her personality. Joy and Sadness are in a race against the clock to restore the memories before Riley loses herself completely.
Now, the bulk of the film is spent following Joy (and mostly Joy), as she attempts to get back. But we do see snippets of how Riley is functioning without Joy, Sadness, and her core memories. Spoiler alert: It’s not good. Riley exhibits symptoms of depression, which we’re going to discuss now.
Loss of Interest in Hobbies and Irritability
This is biggest and most obvious one. Riley loves hockey, but when her family moves to San Francisco, she has to leave her team and friends behind. Her mom quickly finds her a new league in their new town, but Riley isn’t excited. She tries out anyway, but it goes poorly and she storms away. Riley ends up turning aggressive when she gets frustrated, and her mom is surprised; clearly this isn’t something that has ever happened before.
Riley’s irritability also comes through when her parents are talking to her and want to know about school in the famous dinner scene that’s been used to promote the film. Riley doesn’t want to talk about it and can’t keep her tone from verging on disrespectful. It ends in a yelling match that has Riley stomping to her room.
Loss of Appetite
Let’s stay on that same scene a bit longer. It’s dinner and both her parents are eating, but Riley just swirls her fork around the take-out carton, never actually eating anything.
Earlier in the film we see her reject pizza in San Francisco, but that’s because she resents the idea of putting broccoli on pizza.
In fact, Riley was the one that suggested to her mom they get food in order to lift the mood. But during dinner, after the fiasco with Joy and Sadness has happened, she’s not eating.
On Riley’s first day of school in the new town, she has to introduce herself. At this point, Joy and Sadness are still in Headquarters, so she hasn’t gone into a spiral yet.
However, Sadness keeps touching all the memories, turning them from happy to sad, almost as if she can’t help it.
This confused me for a bit, but now I’m going to explain it this way: Riley was already in a negative state of mind because of the move. Riley was already letting Sadness govern her (instead of Joy). She didn’t just fall into a depression because she lost her core memories. She was already struggling emotionally before Joy and Sadness went missing—which is really great since for awhile I was worried Riley’s depression would be magically fixed with Joy and Sadness returning while people actually struggling with depression don’t have such an easy healing process. Riley already struggling to function before the mishap shows that depression sometimes creeps up on a person.
When Riley needs to introduce herself to the class, she can’t focus (partly because Joy and Sadness are squabbling up in Headquarters and her memories keep changing) and ends up crying because she misses her home so much.
Feelings of Worthlessness
This one was done subtly, but I saw it in the scene where Riley video chats with her best friend from home. When Riley finds out that her friend has already made a new friend, she angrily ends the call (another sign of irritability) and presumably feels not too great about herself. How come her friend was able to move on so quickly? Doesn’t she miss her?
This one is more due to Joy and Sadness messing around with Riley’s Dream Production for various reasons, but Riley has a nightmare and wakes up.
Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” mood
Riley is obviously sad about the move to San Francisco. She left her home, friends, and familiar surroundings all for a rundown house, a new school, and a city that puts broccoli on pizza.
There’s a lot of anxiety around the move. Besides fitting in and trying to make new friends, Riley can also sense her parents’ tension. They moved for her dad and his job and Riley overhears her parents talking about money problems. Worse, the moving van with all their stuff goes missing and no one knows when their stuff will arrive. Having your things to make your new home homey and familiar can help moving go smoother and cause less stress, but they don’t have that luxury.
However, after her initial breakdown in school, she doesn’t cry again, until the end of the film, when equilibrium is finally restored. Riley tried to suppress her feelings of sadness and anxiety because her mom asked her to put on a smile. As a result, Riley seems to numb herself and since she doesn’t have Joy and Sadness, she’s not functioning properly. This made me think of Frozen and the “good girl” Elsa strives to be. Because Riley and Elsa are putting on a face, they’re not processing their emotions. They aren’t allowed to go through a spectrum of emotion and that numbs them, making them feel empty.
The hardest part of watching Inside Out for me was seeing Riley become more and more numb to everything. She seemed like a shell of her herself.
Riley is for all intents and purposes empty. Her core memories are gone. The glass case that stored them is literally empty. And she embodies that, like I just mentioned.
Does Love Fix Everything?
Long time followers of AM know Mel and I have major beef with Frozen for how they closed Elsa’s story. Love is not the answer to every problem, especially mental illness. Inside Out, thankfully, knows that and did something different.
Riley appears depressed because Joy, Sadness, and her Core Memories are gone. So Fear, Anger, and Disgust have been left in charge of helping her function (spoiler alert: They suck at it).
Riley is not clinically depressed since not once are neurotransmitters mentioned—the chemicals in the brain that can get out of whack and cause mental illness or other neurological problems like Parkinson’s Disease. Naturally, Joy and Sadness returning to HQ and restoring her memories should be solution enough.
Now I cried a lot during Inside Out. I cried the most here.
This is where the story cycles back to Riley feeling like she has to put on a brave face because her mom asked her. It also ties us back to Joy and Sadness and their own arcs. I mentioned Sadness had been touching memories, thus making them sad instead of happy. This freaked Joy out because of course you’d rather have happy memories, right? No one wants to be sad. But Joy, who has been trying so hard to be happy all the time, finally sees that being sad is a part of life. Nothing can be wholly happy.
Joy gives Sadness control of Riley, finally letting her cry. Letting her feel the pain she was numbing herself to—just like Elsa, unable to experience a full range of emotions. Riley also opens up to her parents, who are there for her.
Because the good thing about being sad is that usually, happiness will follow. Joy and Sadness are able to join forces and new memories form that are happy and sad, not solely one or the other. It also means a lot to me that Riley’s core memories do become “sad” in the end since they will now carry a tinge of nostalgia and longing for her old home. But they also still make her happy.
Riley overcomes her depression not just by Joy and Sadness restoring order in her brain, but by Riley talking with her parents, the people who love her, and feeling the sadness she needs to in order to move forward.
If you are suffering from symptoms of depression and don’t know what to do please, please, talk to someone you trust because you and your life matter.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255
Take care and love yourselves.