Coming of age films are certainly not a new genre and some of the most beloved films of recent years have been of this style, whether that’s Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart, The Perks Of Being A Wallflower or Submarine.  One of the latest films in this eclectic bracket is the directorial debut of writer and actress Kelly Oxford, Pink Skies Ahead.  The film stars The End Of The F***ing World’s Jessica Barden as Winona (the most 90s possible name), a college dropout who has moved back in with her parents and has been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.

Much of the film documents Winona’s efforts to convince herself that she is fine when she is clearly not. In addition to her diagnosis we find out Winona’s parents Richard and Pamela are planning to sell their family home and downsize to an apartment, seemingly not including Winona in this move. Winona works for her father as a chauffer and doing his filing, even though she has yet to pass her driving test, this is a frequent theme throughout the film and does bring odd moments of humour as she feels uncomfortable driving herself and at one point asks strangers to sit in the car while she drives.

The film is set in 1998 yet still feels entirely in the present with the mannerisms of many of the characters not dissimilar to those likely to be seen today although the characters aren’t chatting to each other on the latest iPhone. The film employs the soundtrack of the time with a selection of grunge tracks from the likes of Hole and The Smashing Pumpkins, helping give Winona and her friends a punky feel.  It is perhaps telling that discussions surrounding anxiety and young people have moved on from the era the film is depicting but given increased representation and scrutiny the film could quite easily be set in present day LA such is the timeliness of its themes.

The film’s tone and length perhaps let it down slightly as the second half for me certainly worked better than the opening salvo with Winona coming across as obnoxious and quite self-centred. Perhaps the more sympathetic characters are her boyfriend Ben (Lewis Pullman) and her paediatrician Dr Cotton played by The Fonz himself Henry Winkler, who lights up each scene he is in an making the most of a fairly small role. Barden excels in the role of Winona, while perhaps being a tad older than the role she is playing, she fully sells Winona’s rebellious nature and makes the audience root for her as she deals with her illness.

The film at times struggles to establish whether it wants to be a harder hitting drama or a light hearted comedy, lacking the laughs for the latter and leaving its most dramatic moments for its final 20 minutes or so. The final half hour in particular is especially effective at showcasing the powerful impact anxiety can have on younger people in particular but also society as a whole, as Winona suffers a series of attacks which are structured and filmed in a powerful manner and leave quite the impact. The suddenness of these moments and the fact they are left towards the film’s denouement allow the audience to feel the sudden change in Winona’s character and sense of helplessness. One minor criticism in this regard is that because the film’s conclusion is effective, the film wraps its plot threads up in an almighty hurry and perhaps could have benefitted from an additional 10-15 minutes to properly tie up some of its narrative beats.

While certainly not the greatest Coming Of Age film of the past few years, Pink Skies Ahead is a well acted and crafted film that has the difficult task of dealing with mental illness, but does so with a sense of fun and makes us root for the majority of its characters. If perhaps slightly muddled tonally, this is well worth a watch for its 90s setting and for its performances, particularly as a vessel for lead Jessica Barden and with some strong supporting work from the majority of its cast. As far as debuts go, this film certainly acts as a strong showcase for the talents of Kelly Oxford and audiences should mark her as a director to keep an eye out for.

Rating: ★★½

MTV Entertainment Studios’ Pink Skies Ahead premieres commercial free on Saturday, May 8 2021 at 9:00PM ET/PT on MTV with a simulcast on Pop TV as part of MTV’s newly-launched Mental Health is Health initiative (May is Mental Health Awareness month)