By Lauren Ball
They filled the darkened, hushed room of The Nightingale, a small independent movie theater in Chicago’s Noble Square neighborhood. The audience, characterized by intensely dyed hair of neon pink and greens, Doc Martens, and nose rings, huddled close together while the film reel hummed.
They had all arrived for the premiere of Torrey Pines, directed by California musician and filmmaker Clyde Petersen. A feature-length, stop-motion animated film, Torrey Pines tells the story of Petersen’s childhood in southern California. Discovering that he was transgender at an early age, the narrative details the specific challenges of growing up in a world dictated by strict gender binaries, such as the rejection of traditionally female clothing. However, the film also details Peterson’s relationships and identity formation, proving that gender isn’t the sole defining factor in a transgender person’s early life – all the other conflicts of youth come into play.
Raised by a mother suffering from schizophrenia, Torrey Pines recounts Petersen’s relationship with his single parent after being “kidnapped” at 12-years-old to travel the country with her. Set in California in the early 1990’s, the film steadily follows the duo’s nonsensical, cross-country odyssey while living within the confines of a small car.
Petersen described the film’s beginnings as a 2-minute song. He was already en route to Buffalo, N.Y., as part of the Torrey Pines screening tour when we talked. In the lyrics, Petersen gently reminisces, “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 get it all out…“, a chorus that undoubtedly doubles as an ode to the film’s beginnings.
“I wrote Torrey Pines in 2007, recorded it, and played it ever since,” said Petersen. “When it came time to making a feature film I just know my story the best, it’s a personal story…so I decided to tell that one.”
Your Heart Breaks, Petersen’s band that originally recorded the song Torrey Pines, also scored the film. Originally consisting of Petersen, Danielle Morgan, and Jamillah Bourdon, the band has cycled through members since its 2000 conception.
“Some of the music already existed, and some of the songs are instrumental remixes of Your Heart Breaks songs,” said Petersen about the score. “Four of the songs are like that, but then the rest is music that was composed for the film after it was animated. It wasn’t necessarily planned, but when we got together to start soundtracking and rehearsing, it just turned out that way.”
This unplanned, natural essence, so inherent to Petersen’s personality, carries through to the film itself. Each scene evolves at its own pace, mimicking the spontaneous progression of a dream. Paired with a lack of dialogue, the narrative gradually fills in, breaking out from a chronological telling along with flashes of images and instances of song. The story ebbs and flows in a fevered state, lending itself to a meditative condition rather than the typical forcefulness of modern day cinema.
The audience is transported, along with 12-year-old Petersen and his mother, in one scene to a chaotic realm characterized by color and movement. As they embark on the cross-country trip, the audience sees on screen images of telephone wires, sunsets, camping tents, desert animals, and spinning car wheels. Your Heart Breaks performed the score live during the screening. Instead of relying on dialogue, the film leads the audience into the music, raw emotion and immediate reaction, rather than linear understanding.
“I wanted to make a film that took its time and let the viewer enjoy scenery and discover the world at the same time as the characters,” said Petersen. “If that felt like a dream, I guess that was intentional. I was trying to make a movie about one person’s hallucinations, a kid’s imagination, and where they meet.”
Torrey Pines is, at its core, is a transgender coming-of-age narrative. But when examined closer, it’s clear that the story delves deeper than just shared gender-based challenges. “Trans characters are rare and important,” said Zach Burba, guitarist in Your Heart Breaks. “But trans characters that have more to their character than just being trans seem even more rare. People need to feel safe telling their story, and I hope Torrey Pines can help.”
Follow the Torrey Pines venues across the U.S.