In “Torrey Pines,” the childhood of its director Clyde Petersen unfolds through beautiful, handmade stop motion animation. We see a pre-transition 12-year-old Petersen — a devoted Trekkie with an ever-present USS Enterprise T-shirt. He yearns to escape the humdrum life of his Southern California hometown, and he gets his wish when his schizophrenic mother takes him on a cross-country road trip. The film is an endearing blend of sweet anecdotes and surrealism, and the result is a story that feels warmly joyous.
As a stop motion film populated by paper creations, the characters in “Torrey Pines” are literally paper-thin, but they’re never two-dimensional. We understand and empathize with young Petersen’s fears and dreams — conveyed thoughtfully through the film’s visuals.
The film’s stop motion style allows complexity to come across in unique ways — in one scene, tigers spewing out of a character’s mouth indicate frustration and anger. In another, Petersen captures the feeling of being misgendered by having his character grow a beard, only to look in the mirror and be jarred back to reality. Add on the fact that the film is largely without dialogue — it has a soundtrack, though, composed of lively Seattle rock guaranteed to boost your indie cred — and the emotions elicited by “Torrey Pines” become a remarkable achievement.
Heartwarming, charming moments aside, the film is never saccharine, and schizophrenic episodes from Petersen’s mother take a toll on him. Yet, the surrealism of these episodes — alien invaders halt the road trip — isn’t played for melodrama, but rather, blunt honesty. As the closing song suggests, Petersen just needs to get this story off his chest, in the hopes that someone watching will empathize with it. In this sense, the film introduces darkness but never lets itself become defined by it — not when there’s “Star Trek” to make bad days seem better.
Ultimately, the earnestness behind “Torrey Pines” makes it a light-hearted, refreshing watch, and Petersen’s voice is one we’re fortunate to have heard.
There will be a screening of ‘Torrey Pines’ on Friday, June 23 at 7 p.m. at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco as part of Frameline41, the San Francisco International LGBTQ Film Festival.
Harrison Tunggal covers film. Contact him at [email protected].