Disney’s new Turning Red film is a beautiful, honest coming-of-age love story. It is fun, fast-paced, and family-friendly. This hero’s journey triumphs over the universal struggle of searching for belonging and the hidden perils of resisting growth. It refuses to tidy up the messy edges of puberty and never betrays the love ethic that is the beating heart of the film.
As with all epic tales, the lead characters are flawed. They make big, messy mistakes. They learn and grow both together and apart. And that is where this film breaks the typical saccharine-sweet mold and makes space for something both relatable and inspiring. It is a testament to how love can provide safe, authentic belonging.
This story is told from the perspective of a 13-year-old girl in 2002. So, if you are expecting to never feel uncomfortable while watching this film, were you ever 13? Mei is somewhere between the girl she has been and the young woman she is becoming. And in the middle of that chaos, she suddenly learns that she is also sometimes a giant red panda. Domee Shi and her team of creatives realistically capture the awkward magic of those early teenage years by paying careful attention to every detail. Mei, the hero, is drawn with thick ankles, a round face, uneven eyebrows, and moles. It’s beautiful to see. Her friends Miriam, Abby, and Priya are each drawn with unique details. They are drawn from their perspective. These girls are #SquadGoals. They see each other and love each other for exactly who they are. Her friends are not phased at the reality that their friend has this giant problem. They trust her, and she trusts them.
There is no doubt that Mei and her mom have a very close and loving relationship. They work together well. Mei talks about how some of her “best moves” are her mom’s moves. However, Mei learns quickly that her mom hasn’t been fully transparent with her. Mei’s mom also experienced turning into a giant panda, knew it was coming for Mei, and never warned her. When Mei asks her mom why she kept this secret, her mom has one of the rawest and most relatable scenes in the film. She cries out, “I thought I had more time. I thought if I just watched you like a hawk, I would see the signs.” Mei’s mom doesn’t succeed initially in helping her daughter despite her diligence, love, and attention. She has been hiding part of who she is for a long time, and she wants to help Mei hide, too, so her daughter can fit in and belong. I haven’t met a mom who doesn’t hope for that on some level.
In her book, Atlas of the Heart, Brene Brown quotes an eighth grader she asked about the difference between belonging and fitting in: “If I get to be me, I belong. If I have to be like you, I fit in.” In this film, Mei has friends who love her unconditionally, panda or no panda. And that love gives her the strength to heal and accept herself. She also has friends who love her only as the panda. She has a family who has always provided for and protected her. That family lovingly carved out what they believed to be the best path for her, and when she chose a different road, they embraced her. She found belonging both with her true friends, at home, and within herself. These characters love big through every struggle. They also remain committed to cleaning up the messes they make and continue to work to see each other, panda or no panda. It is a story of belonging and real, messy beautiful love.