(2009) Written and directed by Adam Elliot; Starring: Toni Collette, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Barry Humphries and Eric Bana; Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Netflix Streaming.
“Max hoped Mary would write again. He'd always wanted a friend. A friend that wasn't invisible, a pet or rubber figurine.” – Narrator (Barry Humphries)
It’s hard to imagine there was a time, not too long ago, when people corresponded through letters, and would wait days, weeks, or even months for a reply. Now we’re instantly connected with folks around the globe, thanks to Facebook, Twitter, and thousands of other internet avenues. We refer to individuals we’ve never met face to face as our friends, while our neighbors are complete strangers. The global community has shrunk, but next door remains a mystery. In this bold new age of instant gratification and a world without borders, it seems something has been lost in the tradeoff.
Mary and Max tells the (purportedly true) story about a lonely eight-year-old girl in Melbourne who initiates an unlikely friendship with a reclusive middle-aged man in New York. Mary Daisy Dinkle (voiced by Bethany Whitmore and Toni Collette) is a shy, imaginative young girl. Due to a large brown birthmark on her forehead, she’s the object of ridicule in her school. She finds little solace at home, as her alcoholic mother and emotionally distant father (who appear to have been forged from a Roald Dahl book) are mired in their own little worlds. One day, Mary picks a name out of a New York phone book, and sends a letter in the hope that some of life’s burning questions can be answered by someone living in a distant land. It’s by sheer happenstance that she ends up finding a kindred spirit by the name of Max Jerry Horowitz.
Max (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a morbidly obese social recluse with Asperger’s syndrome (now classified under the somewhat generic-sounding term “autism spectrum disorder”). He’s an alien on his own planet, trapped in self-imposed exile from the rest of the human race. His home town of New York is depicted in black and white, mirroring his literal-minded perceptions. Other people are a constant source of confusion to Max, with his inability to gauge others’ emotions and non-verbal cues. He lives a quiet, monastic existence in his tiny apartment with his goldfish, one-eyed cat, and imaginary friend, Mr. Ravioli, who sits quietly in the corner reading self-help books. He longs for a friend, while being outwardly incapable of maintaining a meaningful connection with another human being. Mary’s first letter breaks through his malaise, thus forging a long-distance friendship, based on their mutual love of cartoon characters called Noblets, all things chocolate, and outcast status. Max views her questions regarding matters of the heart or being the object of bullying as simply problems to be solved.
Writer/director Adam Elliot deserves kudos for creating a story that’s alternately hilarious and heartbreaking. Bittersweet, with emphasis on the bitter, Mary and Max goes to dark places that Pixar or Aardman would fear to tread. It’s not afraid to explore the abject despair that only the truly alienated can experience. The stop-motion animation style matches Elliot’s warts-and-all approach, with character designs that aren’t cute or cuddly. While Max’s borderline grotesque features aren’t likely to inspire plush toys, T-shirts or other merchandise, his appearance underscores the isolation he likely feels on a daily basis.
True to its non-traditional pretensions, Max and Mary doesn’t wrap everything up in a neat little package, with the underdogs triumphant. In the end, Mary’s life is still a mess, and Max... well, let’s just say he hasn’t changed much. The final scene is poignant and fitting to the main characters. It might not be the one we were hoping for, but it shows a great deal of integrity on the part of the filmmakers. It’s easy to forget that the characters are cast in plasticine, since they display more depth than many characters in live action films. Their artificiality belies the fact that they can still evoke real emotions. It’s a beautiful tale that reminds us friends can come from unexpected places, whether we want them or not.