The first minutes of Rocks in My Pockets unfold in standard-issue animation of the European variety: cutesy (yet grown-up) drawings, whimsically surreal images, black-comic storytelling. Before long, though, the movie begins traveling in ever-darker spirals, as director-animator Signe Baumane spins a personal tale of family disturbance and depression. The Latvian-born filmmaker reaches back to the story of her grandmother to discover why the women in her family seem inexorably drawn to suicide. (The title refers to family lore about grandma being discovered standing in a river, trying to drown herself—but lacking the weight of rocks that might help her sink to the bottom.)
The grandmother, Anna, provides the most colorful part of the saga. She was an educated young woman—evidently uncommon in interwar Latvia—whose career plans changed when she ran off with her married boss, had eight children, and then weathered World War II and the Soviet years that followed. Her disappointment and Job-like burden is captured in the repeated image of her gathering 40 buckets of water every day to keep the family farm going. Baumane animates the film in a mix of papier-mâché objects and simple drawings, an effective way to keep everything personal and handmade.
As Baumane explores the instability and suicidal feelings that afflict the women of her family, the film gets a little more scattered. But the fact that Baumane explores her own struggles with depression makes Rocks anything but a distanced, clear-headed examination of an issue. It’s a rare movie that makes you want to check in on how the filmmaker is doing since completing the project. She also narrates the film, in a broadly-accented, looping voice that never ceases for the entire hour-and-a-half running time. Baumane’s a very funny, slightly unhinged actress; she’d be a spellbinding raconteur at a dinner party. While watching the images, though, I couldn’t shake the thought that her nonstop chattering actually detracts from the power of her quirky visual art—more than once I wished she’d pipe down for a while so I could watch the pictures tell the story. I confess the movie wore me out a little, but it certainly is unusual. There aren’t many first-person cartoon memoirs out there that tie together the history of Latvia with inherited depression, so sheer novelty carries the day.
ROCKS IN MY POCKETS Opens Fri., Jan. 2 at Sundance Cinemas. Not Rated. 88 minutes.