Faith Gong: Crying at the movies

We were snuggled up on the couch (or crammed in, depending on your perspective) for our family’s weekly Friday movie night. In the flickering light from the screen, I could see three pairs of worried eyes staring at me.

“Uh, Mommy,” whispered one of my daughters, “Are you okay?”

“I’m okay,” I sobbed. “This scene just gets me every time.”

We were watching the 2015 Pixar animated feature, Inside Out. The last time I’d seen this film was in a theater five years earlier, and I’d broken down in sobs during the exact same scene.

Inside Out takes place largely inside the brain of an 11-year-old girl named Riley. Riley’s emotions go haywire during a time of major change in her life, and the film follows Joy and Sadness as they try to get Riley back on track. In the scene that always shreds me, the two emotions have met Riley’s old imaginary friend, “Mr. Bing Bong,” in her long-term memory. Joy and Bing Bong become trapped in the Memory Dump, where memories fade into oblivion. They attempt to ride a toy wagon out of the dump, but Bing Bong realizes that the two of them are too heavy. He helps Joy launch the wagon, and then he bails out in mid-air. Joy escapes, realizes he’s no longer with her, and looks back down into the Memory Dump. Bing Bong, as he vanishes, waves up at her and calls, “Take [Riley] to the moon for me, okay?”


It seems I will never be able to watch this scene without dissolving into tears. My children don’t understand (yet). I’m not sure I understand entirely, either: Why should I weep repeatedly over the disappearance of an animated pink cat-elephant-dolphin hybrid that only ever existed in a fictional child’s imagination?

I never used to cry easily, and I expected age to make me even less emotive: The more you’ve lived and seen, the less it should affect you, right? To my dismay, it appears that age has had the opposite effect. Nowadays I cry over movies, songs, and books that would never have touched me in earlier decades.

I was in high school when I first cried over a book. I still remember my surprise over the tears that welled up and spilled over, all because of some words on a page. The book was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

It was the final scene that did it, when the book’s heroine, Francie Nolan, is preparing to leave her Brooklyn neighborhood for college and the world beyond. Looking out her tenement window, Francie sees a young girl watching her from a fire escape across the yard and remembers how she used to sit on her fire escape as a child and watch teenaged girls in other apartments.

As a teenager myself, I wept through the closing lines of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, moved by the knowledge that I, like Francie, was in the process of leaving behind the familiar terrain of childhood for parts unknown. Would I cry over this scene today? Probably not: It was a case of the right book at the right time.

Such was the case a couple of years ago, when I could barely read the final paragraphs of A. A. Milne’s The House at Pooh Corner through my choking sobs, while my children stared at me with alarm.

In that book’s closing scene, Christopher Robin will soon depart for boarding school, and he attempts to explain to his stuffed bear, Winnie the Pooh, that things might never be the same between them.

He begins: “’Pooh[….]if I – if I’m not quite---’ he stopped and tried again – ‘Pooh, whatever happens, you will understand, won’t you?’”

Pooh has no idea what he’s talking about, and the book closes: “But wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest, a little boy and his Bear will always be playing.”

As the parent of young children, Pooh Corner did what A Tree Grows in Brooklyn did for my teenaged self: filled me with the sense of onrushing time, of children growing up and inevitably leaving behind the magic of childhood. That “enchanted place” where a little boy and his bear are always playing? That’s the memory of a parent, for whom one’s child is always a child, no matter how deeply buried in layers of “maturity.” 

So perhaps when I — when any of us — cry during the “Bing Bong scene” of Inside Out, we are crying for our own childhoods and for our children’s childhoods. We weep for the magic that’s irretrievably forgotten as we launch into our futures with barely a backward glance.

Inside Out’s Bing Bong exemplifies the forgotten shades of childhood imagination, but he also provides a heartrending example of sacrifice. And when I consider the handful of books and movies that, like Inside Out, make me cry even after repeated viewings, sacrifice is the common denominator.

The most notorious example is the 2003 film Love Actually, which my husband and I first saw in the theater as newlyweds. We later bought the DVD, and I have watched this movie at least five times. Although I know exactly what’s coming, every single time I dissolve into a puddle of tears when Sam, who has a pre-teen crush on his classmate Joanna, bursts through airport security and races police to the departure gate in order to tell Joanna goodbye. His single-minded devotion to a love that may never be requited opens my tear ducts without fail.

I have read Charlotte’s Web aloud to my children twice now, and I can never get through the final two chapters without breaking down. It’s in these chapters that Charlotte, the barn spider who saves the life of Wilbur the pig through her ingenious weaving, faces her own impending death with grace and ensures the future of the children she’ll never meet. I’m always in tears as I read E. B. White’s gorgeous finish: “It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.”

These scenes have made me weep repeatedly, through the seasons of my life: Scenes in which characters make deep sacrifices for others, to the point of sacrificing their very lives. The motivation behind their courage is love; not a romantic love that offers the promise of reward, but something far deeper. Bing Bong, Sam, and Charlotte each embody a love of goodness, truth, and beauty — and their own pride, comfort, and survival are less important than the greater story of these ideals.

So I weep — and I’m not alone. We weep because we believe, deep in the very core of our being, that this kind of sacrificial love is possible. Of course it’s possible, because it’s not the best and brightest who exhibit it, but a child, a barn spider, and a cat-elephant-dolphin. Someday, it could even be us.

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit director. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, five children, assorted chickens and ducks, one feisty cat, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her "free time," she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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