Saturday, September 27, 2014

Rocks in My Pockets

Written, directed and voiced by Signe Baumane.

 As someone who has struggled with depression for most of my life I can say first hand there might not be a lot of fun in depression but there is a lot of funny. Perhaps its the predisposition to seeing doom and gloom even when they are not there that allows for the reverse on rare occasions and for most of us those rare occasions can be enough to carry us through the bad times.
Rocks in My Pockets, the first feature-length animated film by New York based Latvian artist Signe Baumane, is a very funny film about depression and mental illness. Baumane uses her life experiences as well as those of her family to draw a world that is both unique and personal and at the same time universal. Tolstoy was only half right when he wrote: "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." The ways might be different, but the scenery and destinations are all pretty much the same.
Starting with her grandmother the film's narrative arc follows the women in Baumane's family as they make their way through life. Their worlds and circumstances might change but certain patterns start to emerge. First there's grandmother Anna, bright and educated, who starts out as a young woman with seemingly endless possibilities and ends up as a desperate mother of 8 beaten down both by the events of history and personal circumstance who dies at 50. Cause of death undetermined, but whispers of empty bottles of pills and suicide attempts lurk in the shadows. Then there is daughter Miranda, bright and artistic, who sees beauty all around her but sinks into the deep well of despair following her marriage and the birth of her child. Then there is granddaughter Linda, bright and beautiful, who is undone by an obsession with a marriage that doesn't exist anywhere other than in her imagination, and granddaughter Irbe, quiet and musical, who eventually succumbs to the voices that only she can hear, and finally there is granddaughter Signe, the thread that ties it all together, whose search for meaning leads to an obsession with ending it all.

It would have been easy to over-dramatize the above. Especially in an animated film. Baumane's film works so well simply because it's not. The animation and art are simple and almost primitive. Her language is matter of fact and straightforward. Her voice-over at times droll and ironic and at times emphatic and melancholy. The humor emerges naturally from the narrative. She captures both the absurdity and banality of normal life as well as the highs and lows of those abnormal moments and people. Baumane is not a professional actress and gives most of the credit to her voice-over coach and co-producer Sturgis Warner. They rehearsed for 7 weeks, but having seen the film I can't see it working with anyone other than Baumane doing it. Her "unprofessionalism" adds a layer of personal honesty and intimacy that might not have been there with anyone else. It is after all her story and while it might be personal and intimate we can all see parts of ourselves and those around us in it.