Streaming Friday 3/11 on Disney+ is “Turning Red,” Pixar’s latest look at the turbulent inner life of tweens. Set at the beginning of the new millennium in Toronto and headed by an all female creative team, “Turning Red” is a delightful and one-of-a-kind film that hits a sweet spot of nostalgia from a fresh perspective.
“Turning Red” stars Rosalie Chiang as Mei Lee, a first generation Chinese Canadian tween balancing the love and expectations of her mother (Sandra Oh) with her own passions and personality. On the cusp of puberty, Mei finds herself torn between karaoke with friends and helping out at her family’s temple, and often must smother her true feelings to keep others happy. After a particularly embarrassing display of protectiveness from her mother, Mei finds herself transformed into a giant red panda, much like the one honored at her family’s temple. As her mother pressures her to control this side of herself, Mei finds her own way of embracing her big feelings with the help of her best friends (Ava Morse, Hyein Park and Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) and the boy band 4*Town.
This movie was really a delight from start to finish. Directed by Domee Shi, creator of the short “Bao, “Turning Red” finds fresh ways to depict the ups and downs of mother daughter relationships during puberty, and to celebrate all of the joys and struggles of being a tween girl. Rosalie Chiang’s voice work as Mei is on point, perfectly displaying all sides of the character: a sassy boy band fan, confident student and respectful daughter. Many depictions of Asian families, and especially of Chinese immigrant mothers, are confined to strict expectations, respect for elders and an overall sense of coldness. What “Turning Point” gets right is its communication of the overwhelming love and protection that Mei’s mother feels. Her warmth and devotion to Mei pours out of her, even when they are in conflict.
Another aspect of “Turning Red” that is rarely shown on screen is the quintessential role of female friends and obsessive fandom as a rite of passage. The bond that Mei shares with her friends over their obsession with 4*Town is so pure and such a specific snapshot of middle school life. Another stereotype the movie bucks is the idea that tween girls are mean and catty, that friendships are fleeting and turbulent. Instead, Mei draws calm from her friends, centering herself by focusing on the sense of self and security she gets from being surrounded by people who really understand her. The creators of “Turning Red” also find a way to both show the young girls genuine adoration for 4*Town, while also winking at their current selves and the perspective that growing up brings.
“Turning Red” is a total delight and a must watch. Anyone who is a tween, was a tween, lives with a tween or just knows the feeling of having big emotions will find something to identify with.