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June 28, 2022

Turning Red is a coming-of-age story that cherishes adolescence without glamorizing it

By HELENA GIFFORD | April 3, 2022

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BOUNGAWA/CC BY-SA 4.0

Gifford reviews Turning Red, an animated coming-of-age film directed by Domee Shi.

Filled with friendship bracelets, chokers, stickers, pads, the Electric Slide and tween magazines, Turning Red is one of the most #relatable portrayals of adolescence that has ever awkwardly gyrated its way onto screens.

Turning Red is about Mei (Rosalie Chiang), a 13-year-old Chinese Canadian girl who is the perfect daughter. She’s a straight-A student, does extracurriculars, comes home on time every day and loves spending time with her mom (Sandra Oh).

The conflict is introduced when Mei begins the transition from childhood to adulthood and must deal with all the changes that come with it, like discovering a new attraction to boys, having mood swings, being mortified by her parents and, oh yeah, turning into an enormous red panda whenever she feels strong emotions.

When I first heard of this movie, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to watch a “puberty movie.” I’d seen enough uncomfortable videos in middle school health class to last a lifetime and wasn’t keen on reliving that time in my life. And the trope of an overachieving student desperate not to disappoint her mother was all too familiar. But once I gave it a chance, I absolutely adored this movie.

Turning Red treats the culture and concerns of 13-year-olds more accurately than any film I’ve ever seen. Mei and her group of friends are obsessed with the boyband 4*Town and decide to raise money to secretly attend the concert. But, of course, the concert directly conflicts with an important family ceremony that would allow Mei to get rid of the red panda.

Most rational adults would immediately consider the magical ceremony to be more important than some concert, but the movie treats Mei’s obsession with respect. Yes, it’s just a silly boyband, and that’s all her mom sees it as. But going to the show is a crucial rite of passage for Mei. She says to her friends, “We’re walking into that concert girls and coming out women.”

The movie also stays away from the trap of glamorizing the girls and making them too adult. 

They have the confidence and attitudes of grownups, but they keep the awkwardness of tweens. A lot of TV shows and movies will have older actors playing teenagers and will also exaggerate romances and drama to a level that is unreasonable to expect from 13-year-olds.

This movie lets them be 13 in all its cringey glory. These kids are not cool. They are more cute than beautiful. They need their parents to drive them places. They chew gum with their braces. They wear stickers! They might fight a little, but they’re best friends again after a five-minute discussion. They have fun!

Turning Red also has a distinct focus on the theme of motherhood. The director of this movie, Domee Shi, previously directed the 2018 short film Bao, another story involving a mother struggling to watch her child grow older and drift away. However, that story was told from the mother’s perspective and this one is told from the child’s.

Mei is at an age where home life starts to become less important than school life, something that her mother has trouble accepting. The close attention that was once comforting turns overbearing as Mei gains independence. The movie doesn’t sugarcoat the fact that, as Mei grows older, their mother-daughter relationship will never be as close as it once was. And that’s okay. Growing apart is just a part of growing up.

I’ve heard this movie criticized for having too narrow an audience because the main character is a Chinese Canadian girl. Somehow, I can’t imagine that same argument being made if the protagonist were a white girl. The traditional culture that is woven into the setting and identities of the characters serves as important representation, not to mention works to accentuate the divide between Mei’s home life and school life. And, most importantly, it means the cooking and food scenes are gorgeous.

The film is steeped in traditional Chinese culture, but it’s also thoroughly rooted in the world of a normal middle school life. Anyone who’s over the age of 12 would be able to relate to the growing pains that this movie focuses on.

Turning Red is about more than just tampons and fluffy magic animals. It’s about finding independence and understanding what it means to grow up. During this movie, I cried. I laughed. I also admittedly developed an unhealthy obsession with red pandas.

Turning Red is streaming now and is definitely worth stealing your friends’ Disney+ password for. This is a story that has long needed to be told and I highly recommend it.

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