“How do I tell the story of my mother gone crazy?” is how Your Heart Breaks’ candid folk-pop song “Torrey Pines” starts off, alluding to Seattle-based songwriter Clyde Petersen’s childhood experience of being raised by a mother with schizophrenia. After recording the song in 2007 with Kimya Dawson (of The Moldy Peaches and Juno soundtrack fame), the band was approached by countless audience members who related to the complicated tribulations of caring for family members suffering from mental illness. Petersen doubles as an incredibly talented stop-motion animator—creating music videos for The Thermals, Madeline Adams, Deerhoof, The Shaky Hands and many more over the last decade—so when the opportunity arose to create a full-length film, he decided to animate the story he was most familiar with: his own.
“It felt good to fictionalize the events of my life. I’ve told the story to very few people over the years, so to sit down for a year and really focus on the strange and funny events of my childhood was a good activity for me,” says Petersen. “Some days it was really hard to focus on it so deeply. Other times it just felt like, ‘This is a lot of work.’ We animated between two and 10 seconds a day for a year and a half.”
Torrey Pines is ultimately a coming-of-age story that illustrates the growing pains of 12-year-old Petersen through blending recollections of experiences and imaginative childhood daydreams with an occasional bewildering hallucination. Along with co-animator Chris Looney and a team of seven interns—including former Athenian and El Hollín songwriter Dena Zilber—Petersen animated the film using hand-painted, handcrafted sets. The crafty quality of visible paintbrush strokes on cut paper objects reinforces a childlike world.
Photo Credit: Joseph P. Traina
Considerably lighthearted and referencing a handful of ’90s pop-cultural references, the plot centers around a two-month, cross-country road trip Peterson took with his mother, from Southern California to New York. As it dedicates a fair amount of footage to capturing the beauty found across state lines—glittering green ocean waves, striped canyon formations, a desert dotted with cacti—it’s easy to be distracted from the underlying severity of the situation. Though we’ve caught on, as has Petersen, that there might be something a bit off with his mother, it’s not until she has a fender-bender and the cop runs her number that we discover how life-changing this trip truly was.
Several scenes touch on the then-blossoming transgender identity of the filmmaker, observable through subtle interactions with peers, as well a fantasy involving a Star Trek actress. One of the most graphic daydreams depicts the pig-tailed tomboy suddenly transforming into a fully-grown woman with breasts haphazardly shooting milk everywhere and a newborn baby falling out—a moment that fully captures the anxiety of impending puberty.
“When I was a kid, I was just really jealous of boys. I wanted to be a boy so bad,” says Petersen. “So, that’s mainly what the gender identity stuff is about in the film: a denial of the puberty I was about to enter and a great fear of it as well. My mom didn’t do a good job preparing me for puberty. She was too busy talking about aliens.”
Unlike most films, Torrey Pines is nearly wordless. Instead, the characters speak in mumbled gibberish, relying on vocal inflection or the occasional image—tigers pouncing out of mouths or lasers shooting from eyes, for example—to convey expression. The garbled voices of adults are not unlike those in “Peanuts” cartoons, and can be pretty effective at humorously lightening the mood. The film approaches several topics of universal relevance, and the absence of language echoes this theme of inclusivity.
“There are times when I wanted it to feel like the viewer is completely in the kid’s world, and kids don’t always listen to adults. They space out and focus on weird stuff. Everyone does that,” says Petersen. “I also wanted to make a film that can travel globally without a language barrier and can be understood by a deaf and hard-of-hearing audience.”
To supplement its emphasis on visual storytelling, the film relies heavily on its star-studded soundtrack as a method of establishing mood, transitioning between scenes and breathing life into characters. Produced by Chris Walla, owner of Hall of Justice Recording Studio in Seattle and former Death Cab for Cutie guitarist, the soundtrack centers around instrumental versions pulled from Your Heart Breaks’ discography. Additional elements were woven in from pensive drone-metal band Earth, Dawson and Lori Goldston, a classically trained cellist recognized for touring with Nirvana. Sound artist and composer Susie Kozawa, who specializes in live foley and soundscapes through her site-specific installations, contributed auxiliary sounds.
Torrey Pines premiered in its hometown with a live score performed by two dozen musicians and an additional crew of people dedicated to creating sound effects. The smaller touring ensemble varies between cities, but for Athens will include Your Heart Breaks members Zach Burba (also of Iji), Jacob Jaffe and Petersen. Local songstress Emileigh Ireland will kick the night off with a set of tunes.
Tender and fantastical, Torrey Pines delves into difficult memories and transforms them into something relatable. While there’s no one path for managing the mental illness of a family member, or for recovering from a traumatic experience yourself, it’d be wise to take the advice of the final lines from the film’s namesake song: “The shit that you’ve been through is the reason you’re you/ And I bet someone is listening with a similar history/ Once the words are spoken and it’s all out in the open, it will help other people feel a lot less broken/ So open up your mouth and let it all out/ You gotta get it all out/ Just get it off your fucking chest.”
A queer punk coming-of-age story told with stop-motion animation and a live score performed by members of Your Heart Breaks. Opening set by Emileigh Ireland. See Art Notes on p. 15.