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COMMENTARY

‘Lightyear’ reminded me that there’s no going back — and that’s OK

After a pandemic gap year, Buzz and his friends helped me let go

In “Lightyear,” Buzz returns to the planet he’s been marooned on for decades after a monumental test flight. But things have changed while he was away.Pixar

I’m not a space-movie person. I’ve never seen “Star Wars,” and “Lightyear” didn’t seem like my kind of thing. But it still made me cry.

“Lightyear” is a movie about Buzz Lightyear, not the toy, but the Space Ranger the toy is based on. It’s supposed to be the movie that made Andy from “Toy Story” want to buy a Buzz Lightyear toy.

In the film, Buzz (voiced by Chris Evans) doesn’t think he needs help from anyone, especially not the Space Ranger-in-training he’s forced to bring along on his mission to explore potentially habitable planets. But when he makes a mistake that gets his team trapped on a faraway planet, T’Kani Prime, he works tirelessly to fix it.

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The movie follows his attempts to reach hyperspeed, in order to continue the mission, by launching a series of four-minute missions to test different fuels — but for everyone else back on T’Kani Prime, each mission is actually four years. In the meantime, his commander and best friend, Alisha (voiced by Uzo Aduba,) gets married, starts a family, and grows older. By the time he succeeds in reaching hyperspeed, it’s Izzy (KeKe Palmer), Alisha’s grandchild, who’s around his age, not Alisha.

As I watched Buzz adjust to his new reality, I couldn’t help but think of my pandemic experience. When the world shut down in March 2020, I was a sophomore in college. I left my dorm for a two-week spring break and didn’t make it back until a year and a half later. I felt like I’d lived a different life in between — and no time had passed at all.

College was something I started stressing about early. As a kid dreaming of leaving Arkansas for a college out of state, I planned to meet my significant other, gain four to six best friends, change the world — oh yeah, and earn a degree.

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But the pandemic foiled my mission, and like Buzz I found myself in a series of seemingly never-ending loops and identical days — “doing class” online. I lost the parts of college no one tells you about: the jokes you whisper under your breath when you don’t understand the lecture, randomly bumping into someone in a dorm bathroom and becoming friends, the first spring-like day after winter when people change into shorts and pretend to study for midterms while basking in the sun.

So, like Buzz, I left, putting my life in America on pause in the hope that when I came back everything would go back to normal. During what was supposed to be my junior year, I moved to Taiwan and lived with my mother’s family.

At the time, Taiwan was relatively unscathed by COVID-19. I freelanced for various US publications, writing about what it was like to be a college student during the pandemic, visited a Buddhist temple, and went on an unofficial boba dessert tour with friends and strangers. In Taipei, I went hiking with my ayi (auntie), and spent time sitting with my nainai (grandma), who runs a jewelry stand in a subway station.

In other words, I made a life there.

But when I came back to the states, the people around me had changed. Other Asian American students I’d befriended in Taiwan returned to their respective colleges, and I didn’t quite fit with my old classmates anymore. My friends found ways to socialize while doing classes online and made new friends. They were applying for jobs and grad school to start “real life,” and I felt left behind.

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In “Lightyear,” the cast changes halfway through the movie. You start out with one team of Space Rangers and just as you get to know them, you have a new cast of characters to contend with. That resonated with me.

The idea of braving my fourth year alone now seems daunting. But watching “Lightyear” gave me a kind of comfort. In a pivotal scene, Buzz struggles to move on because he needs his time and his friends from before to matter. I felt that, too.

I wanted my time in college to mean something. I didn’t meet the “one,” and I probably won’t next year. The people I will finish my four years with are not the ones I started with, and that end date will be a year late.

“Lightyear” reminded me of the friends I have made in the last two years: friends I love, who’ve started families, who despite everything have figured out what they want to do with their lives and are out there doing it. The movie found the part of me that still longed for the life I had — and gently reminded me that it’s time to let go.

The mission changes, but so do we.


Serena Puang can be reached at serena.puang@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @SerenaPuang.