Animated films aimed at adults are rare in contemporary cinema, especially in Hollywood. We’re used to light-hearted fare that appeals to families in order to get the big bucks at the box office. It’s what makes Signe Baumane’s Rocks in My Pockets so unique. It’s a deeply personal, mature film that she describes as “a crazy quest for sanity”.
In the film, Baumane recounts the personal history of the women in her family. Beginning with her grandmother (and her overprotective older husband) and ending with herself, she traces the unfortunate trend of depression among them. It’s a story of hardship, heartache, suicide and ultimately, hope.
It’s not often that you actually hear the director’s voice when you’re watching a film. Even further, it’s not often that you hear them narrating the entire story from start to finish. As such, Rocks in My Pockets takes some getting used to, with a format that comes across like the saddest bedtime story you’ll ever hear.
It doesn’t take long to adjust however, as Baumane turns out to be an able narrator. Her voice is expressive and adds considerable personality to the film. It also gives you a strong sense of place due to her Latvian accent.
This narration acts as a guide but it’s just one aspect of the storytelling. More significantly, it’s the amazing animation that brings the story to life. Combining hand-drawn and stop motion animation styles, Rocks in My Pockets bursts with creativity and imagination. The events of this true story are enhanced with surreal concepts that brilliantly convey the complex minds of the women. These visuals are also a source of humour, even if it’s usually from a very dark perspective (musings about certain excretory body functions during strangulation for example).
Indeed, despite the colorful, playful images there’s always an underlying tinge of sadness. Baumane sets this tone early with her grandmother’s story of oppression under a commanding husband, as well a society alternately affected by Nazi invasion and Soviet socialism (all while having 8 children to feed). It’s not hard to understand why she would develop suicidal thoughts. This legacy lived on the genes of her descendants, a number of them suffering through misfortune and viewing suicide as a relief and freedom from their miserable lives.
For Baumane, the self-destructive voices in her head are something she actively fights against, adopting a more positive personal outlook. The film is clearly therapeutic for her, an attempt to understand a seemingly genetic predisposition to depression that the family kept secret for many years (exacerbated by Latvia’s stigma towards mental illness). Her purpose is clear and admirable, but it comes at a cost. As the story progresses the narration becomes tiring, preventing the viewer from full immersion. It’s often unnecessarily explanatory and there are digressions that feel too much like private contemplation that doesn’t propel the film forward. Individual moments find tremendous pathos and insight but overall, it’s slightly lacking.
There’s a very moving story at the heart of Rocks in my Pockets, one that could leave you in tears by the end. From a personal standpoint however, it loses some of that emotional impact with its recital style. Notwithstanding, the animation has a visual spark and conceptual maturity that’s absolutely vital in the genre today. Animation enthusiasts should certainly give it a look.
Rocks in My Pockets is now playing in select theaters.
Rocks in My Pockets is the Latvian submission for the 2014 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Click here for reviews of other official submissions.