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Rocks in My Pockets
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by Jay Seaver

"I don't want to tell someone with suicidal thoughts to keep quiet, but..."
3 stars

I want to champion "Rocks in My Pockets"; it is a striking animated film made with adults in mind, and one that tackles a difficult but important subject head-on. The world needs movies like that. The thing is, the world also needs them to be something other than a chore to sit through. That isn't to say that a film about depression and suicide should be easy, or fun, but it needs to hook the audience, and at the risk of sounding uncaring, this one can get very tedious at points.

It starts out provocatively enough, with filmmaker and narrator Signe Baumane describing a dream about watching her grandmother Anna attempt suicide, and how she would not make the same mistakes Anna does in this dream, because she has given plenty of thought about how to do it right. It turns out that there is a history of mental illness and suicide among the women of Baumane's Latvian family, and she recounts five: Herself, Anna, and three cousins - Miranda, whom Signe was close to; the beautiful and aloof Linda; and Irbe, who casually mentions to Signe one day that she hears voices.

All five of these tales have elements in common - familial and cultural pressures to not reveal this "weakness", the looming presence of the Soviet Union, which drastically upends circumstances and has only clumsy pharmacological treatment on offer for mental illness, the stricter bonds of propriety placed upon women than men. It's to Baumane's credit that, while she gives the bulk of the movie over to Anna (she lived an eventful life even without urges to relinquish it), she finds ways to differentiate these tales and characters who are often only met briefly. Her drawing style may be simple and not given to animated wild takes, but there's a common unease to her characters that transfers readily to the audience.

And while the characters are often very straightforward cel-style animation, Baumane embellishes everything around them with impressive three-dimensional work, adding what looks like a great deal of stop-motion to the more traditional work. It's striking, and while each character tends to have a visual gimmick primarily associated with her story - Anna is in boxes, Linda has interaction with flat surfaces, and Signe wanders a model of the brain to match her attempt to understand how hers works - Baumane does not strictly limit any to one character or segment. They are, after all, family, and their issues are related and stem from common genetic and cultural sources. The animation work on all is fantastic, not slick like a big-studio production but smoothly done and putting deviations from the main style to good work.

It might be a great movie if not for the endless narration.

Though Chuck Jones is not the sort of animator most will think of when seeing a movie like this, within about ten minutes of the start of Rocks in My Pockets I could not help but recall his disdain for what he called "animated radio", animated work so dependent on the spoken word that you can follow it with your eyes closed and not miss anything of substance. Baumane narrates this movie, and she never shuts up and just lets her pictures communicate - she'll describe what's on screen, repeat herself to fill potentially quiet moments, and do character voices like someone reading a story to a toddler. She could easily cut half of it out and, even without shifting to conventional voice acting, the occasional silence might help underscore the emotion of the scene.

Maybe that just hit me wrong on this particular night, but it was a good thing I was seeing this in a theater as opposed to home, because I might not have stuck it out otherwise. It's a fine piece of work, in so many ways, that I wish that the ways I was impressed and saddened weren't so countered by my frustration.

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originally posted: 01/26/15 03:26:55
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Directed by
  Signe Baumane

Written by
  Signe Baumane

  Signe Baumane

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