Mary and Max (2009)

Director:  Adam Elliot
Cast:  Toni Collette, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Eric Bana
Plot:  A tale of friendship between two unlikely pen pals: Mary, a lonely, eight-year-old girl living in the suburbs of Melbourne, and Max, a forty-four-year old, severely obese man living in New York.

Genre:  Animation / Comedy / Drama
Awards:  Won Crystal Bear - Special Mention (Berlin)
Runtime:  92min
Rating:  NC16 for some mature themes.
International Sales:  Icon Entertainment 

This sweet, heartfelt claymation (stop-motion animation using clay models) is lovingly directed by Adam Elliot, who previously won an Oscar for his animated short Harvie Krumpet (2003).  Here in his first feature, Elliot charts the path to our hearts with a poignant tale of an unlikely friendship between a young Ugly Betty lookalike Australian girl called Mary, and an old and obese New Yorker called Max who suffers from a mental illness. 

Mary’s curiosity about how babies come about in the US leads her to write a letter to someone randomly in New York.  At first stunned and confused, Max, the recipient of that letter, eventually reciprocates by sending her a letter and some chocolate.  But all is not well as Max receives more letters from Mary asking him what love and “sexing” is. 

The tensions between a pubescent girl who has low self-esteem, and a mentally-ill old man who has no friends are played out excellently, even though they never really meet throughout the course of the film.  Yet as viewers, we see them as perfectly compatible, complementing yet similar, and we want them together as friends. 

Elliot goes right into the psyche of a volatile and insecure man grasping with the prospect of friendship, an idea that seems alien to him, and parallels it with a girl’s desire to make sense of the world.  Further, Elliot gives near-equal screen time to both lead characters, alternating between them not by cutting quickly back and forth, but by moving the plot along through big narrative chunks devoted to the development of each character’s past and present, as well as laying the groundwork for their futures. 

I feel that Mary and Max is not a story about two characters, but of two characters sharing the same story.  And that story is a bittersweet one.  In one encapsulating moment, the 'Que Sera, Sera' song is played, cleverly juxtaposing with images of an alcoholic and suicidal Mary as she recalls her past.

Ultimately, Mary and Max is a story about friendship and forgiveness, and the need for redemption.  Although the film ends on a quite depressing note, its lighted-hearted take on loneliness as a key theme is likely to fill the viewer with feelings of restrained optimism.  Well-written, and conceptually unique, Elliot’s film may not rank as one of the finest claymation films ever made, but it certainly presents itself as a solid work in need of greater recognition.


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