New York-based animation director Signe Baumane will soon release Rocks In My Pockets, a mixed-media feature-length animated film for grown-ups very much in line with indie features such as Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues (2008), Paul and Sandra Fierlinger’s My Dog Tulip (2009), and Bill Plympton’s throng of long-form efforts. Although it is Baumane’s first feature-length endeavor of her own (she has worked on Plympton’s feature films before), her extensive short film oeuvre form an excellent track record. A personal approach and a not-seldom uncomfortable sense of honesty make up Baumane’s unique signature.
It’s not hard to guess that Rocks In My Pockets is autobiographical. The movie is set in the director’s home country of Latvia and spans almost a century of its culture, society, and politics, beginning from the 1920s. As the narrator, Baumane herself guides us through her family’s turbulent history, from grandmother’s failed suicide attempt to niece Linda’s hallucinations about being proposed to. Insanity seems to be a family affair, one that they don’t like to talk about. Except for Signe.
In the film she speaks openly about her and her family’s struggles, recalling fragemented stories of female relatives and trying to bring those pieces together like a puzzle. How come grandmother couldn’t properly drown herself, even though she used to be the smartest girl in town? Why did niece Miranda try to hang herself soon after her son was born? And what about the lonely niece Irba, whose voices in her head kept telling her to slit her wrists, and who eventually hangs herself? Baumane paints a clear family portrait, one filled with disappointment, failed love, and unanswered questions.
Dealing with a heavy subject like depression, still a taboo for many, is a challenge that Baumane accepts with great courage by sharing personal experiences (being labeled schizophrenic, attempting suicide, not being able to take care of her son), raising questions (about pills and mental hospitals), and showing how she copes with her feelings every day. Essentially, Rocks in My Pockets is Baumane’s effort to make sense of her own strange feelings of wanting to end her life.
Despite its serious theme, this is a funny film, although not in the conventional sense. The movie possesses a peculiar style of humor that stems from visual metaphors, absurd details of real life, and a dose of irony rather than obvious jokes. The film’s most distinguished moments are the dark, painfully honest ones, like the moment when the narrator shares her intention to put on adult diapers if she hangs herself, so her fellow citizens wouldn’t have to clean her ‘shit and piss’ when they discover her body.
Much like the characters’ life stories, the art is imperfect but captivating. Clean-ups and inbetweens are seriously overrated—the animation’s rough pencil lines and infrequent frame rates convey the story perfectly, while the hand-drawn artwork combines well with the photographed miniature sets that serve as striking backgrounds. Rather than aiming for reality, the sets visualize states of mind through roughly painted textures and bold color choices.
While Rocks in My Pockets is a pleasurable viewing experience, there is something about the pacing that is a bit off. Although the story never lost my attention in terms of content, the one-and-a-half hours of non-stop talking became tiresome after a while, especially with Baumane’s thick Latvian accent. Some words and sentences are hard to comprehend, and while it is certainly possible to decipher, it requires extra effort from the viewer. Baumane has received quite some criticism for using her own voice—even from her own mother—but the decision for her to do the voice-over herself is, at least, understandable. Not only was there no room for a professional actor in the budget, but it adds personality to the story. Nevertheless, a short pause in the narration would have benefited the viewing experience.
All in all, the movie is an incredible accomplishment. Even with a micro-budget of US$300,000, the script and visuals manage to captivate the viewer. But what’s perhaps even more impressive is Baumane’s ability to turn a deeply personal and difficult journey into more than just a film; it feels like an intense conversation with a close friend, a conversation that will leave you thinking for quite some time.
Rocks in My Pockets opens at the IFC Center in Manhattan tomorrow, and at the Laemmle Royal in Los Angeles on September 12. The film will also play in Seattle, Houston, Boston, Vancouver, Chicago, and other cities over the next few months. Screening dates and additional information can be found at RocksInMyPocketsMovie.com.