Signe Baumane’s Rocks in My Pockets, an inventive animated feature about depression and familial roots, suggests NPR’s “The Moth” storytelling series by way of Persepolis, mixing mesmerizing memoir monologue with whimsical animation. Baumane opens with her illustrated avatar rolling a large rock up a mountain. Although her Sisyphean imagery smacks of a heavy-handed and unoriginal metaphor for despair, Baumane’s dark wit and candor is immediately apparent once she explains, via voiceover, the most efficient process through which she would consider hanging herself: “I would rub the rope with soap so the friction between the separate strands would be minimal.” Much of the film remains on this wavelength, with her intimately deadpan narration exuding her dry Eastern European sense of self. Baumane’s lineage, essentially, is a family tree plagued with thorns of impenetrable sadness.
Focusing in particular on five female members of her family, Baumane illuminates passed-down anecdotes and the psychological imbalances that her relatives struggled with throughout their lives. The portraits stretch from Latvia in the 1920s to Baumane’s own contemporary battle with thoughts of suicide as anexpatriate artist in New York City. Although depression is as an anti-expressive state of mind, Rocks in My Pockets uncovers a breakthrough of expressionistic vibrancy by tackling the topic with an understanding of the symbiotic relationship between melancholy, heredity, and difficult living.
The portraits, told in a quasi-linear structure that begins with her hard-working grandmother, are conveyed via Baumane’s use of colored-pencil drawing and papier-mâché. What Baumane lacks in artistic sophistication (her human characters are rather lazily sketched), she compensates for with imagination. Animation is a medium often underserved by its promise of symbolic expression, but Bauman’s Jan Švankmajer-esque illustrations refreshingly embrace the shape-shifting capabilities of the form, creating immersive dioramas from the sinister forests of Soviet-occupied Latvia to cityscapes of buildings that have eyes.
Baumane ably communicates the disaffecting struggle to be both a woman and a mother as the madness that runs throughout her family grips her everyday. But her problem-solving denouement, which concludes that being convivial and hearing other people’s stories can overcome depression, feels like a cop out, or a last chance grab at a happy ending. It undermines the nuance and psychological acumen through which she tells most of her family’s stories in a film that feels as authentic as an heirloom quilt passed down through generations.