A Trip into the Imagination: 'Mirrormask' and the Exploration of Adolescent Self-Identity through the Lens of Fantasy

The movies Lady Bird and Stand By Me come to mind when you think of "coming-of-age" films. You probably don't think of them as being associated with psychedelic dream sequences or flying stone giants. Most of these stories center on the protagonists' quest to "discover themselves" throughout their adolescence. In his creative film Mirrormask, director Dave McKean, on the other hand, decides to push this cliche into uncharted territory. You didn't realize you needed something like Mirrormask, a blend of Twilight-style weirdness and the hypnotic dreaming state of Labyrinth.

When Stephanie Leonidas' Helena Campbell (Stephanie Leonidas) leaves the circus, she's a disturbed artist who has a deep-seated dislike of her family's profession as a traveling circus. After years of being forced to perform in her parents' touring show with them, she has become resentful and bitter. Helena is overcome with regret after a confrontation with her mother in which she cries, "I wish you die." Her mother is abruptly transported to the hospital. Helena continues to lose herself in her fantasy while the circus workers wonder what will become of their trip without Mrs. Campbell (Gina McKee). What follows is a crazy, trance-like journey into a new universe. With the help of a devastating black sludge and an alternate universe setting, McKean guides the audience through Helena's journey to overcome her feelings of worthlessness and repair the seemingly broken relationship with her mother, all while allowing the audience to see her uniqueness in the process.

Image courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Pictures
Helena is startled awake in the middle of the night by the sound of violin music early in her journey. It is out in the hallway that she encounters a trio of street artists, and she decides to investigate. One plays an unsettling tune against the cement wall as the others juggle nearby. The faces of the three males are completely obscured by the masks they're wearing. The spectator is introduced to Helena's psychological battle with identity right away. Paper mache is used to depict the cliché of "wearing a mask" in a very literal way.

This material will be revisited later on when we see the violinist turn to stone while Helena speaks with him about his music. Helena is dragged inside a weird library by one of the guys, as the tar engulfs the third man. While Helena and her savior plan an escape from the pitch-black interior, the darkness is held at bay. One of the exits leads to an impressionistic metropolis, which is similar to the afterlife in Robin Williams' What Dreams May Come. As a result, Helena is transported to a state of lucidity where she discovers who she really is.

Helena quickly finds that she has been replaced with an evil-twin that is now threatening her life back home in the parallel reality. In every mirror or window, Helena sees a glimpse of this evil disguised as her own face. McKean seems to employ this aspect to show Helena's detachment from the image she sees in the mirror, at least in part. Helena sees her twin as a visible depiction of the fact that she is continuously mimicking another person in her daily life. Helena's appearance on the outside is really a façade she wears to satisfy her family and friends. As a result, Helena's twin is a real manifestation of her own selfishness and teenage unhappiness.

Image courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Pictures
It becomes clear to the audience as the story unfolds what Helena must overcome. White and black queens (both played by McKee) rule distinct kingdoms in her "dream" scene. The dark queen's daughter, Helena's twin, escapes her mother's clutches, uprooting her kingdom in the process. Her parents want to subjugate her and McKean shows it via this dissent, which shows Helena's dismay. She unleashed her anger on the realm to rein in her unruly child - Mrs.argumentative Campbell's conduct embodied — by unleashing the black queen. The queen uses magic to create this black poison, which she then unleashes into the world in an attempt to wipe out the white queen, whom she suspects of hiding her kidnapped daughter. Using this sludge, Helena expresses her feelings of being engulfed by an identity that she can not recognize. Trying to fit a specific mold, in this example, as a circus performer, has left her feeling empty.

A "Mirrormask" taken by Helena's twin serves as a key to awakening the white queen, an alternate form of her mother who seems to be Mrs. Campbell's loving side. Before Helena can help rescue the queen and mend her connection with her mother, she has to regain her "mirror" - her confidence in herself. A multitude of challenges await her on her voyage through the weird realms, and her ability as a performer is essential in overcoming them. Helena discovers that she may flourish as her own self while accepting her parents' teachings. She recognizes that she can be more than just a performer; she can be anything she chooses to be at any given moment.

picture of a mirror mask in closeup, courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn
After a last fight with her double, Helena finally finds the key to freedom, which she retrieves from her own mirror. Helena must wear the mirror mask in order to bring her twin back into the dream world and fight her. As a result of this chain of events, Helena's internal fight to comply is effectively over. New insights emerge as Helena adapts to her new identity, helping her to begin forging her own path once again.

When it comes to McKean's depiction of teenage development, he deviates from the typical aesthetics and aspects of the genre. Films that deviate from the stereotypical representation of adolescence (John Hughes' characters aren't all dealing with boy-drama like this) provide an engaging viewing experience. It's a dreamlike look at a 15-year-journey old's through hard inner development, family strife, and her eventual rise to self-affirmation. Helena enters her dream as a broken, wounded young lady, but she emerges a whole new person, eager to be the finest version of herself. It's a narrative that will stay with you long after you've seen it, thanks to McKean's wacky visuals and thought-provoking storyline twists.