Movie Review 31/3/11
MARY AND MAX
Starring the voices of: Barry Humphries, Toni Collette, Phillip Seymour-Hoffman
Directed by: Adam Elliot
Before the end credits roll, Ethel Mumford’s famous quote appears onscreen: “God gives us our relatives – thank God we can choose our friends”. The simple, heartfelt sentiment of a longing for meaningful friendship, understanding and an outlet to share is a huge driving force that makes Mary and Max a cinematic gem one finds hidden in the cave buried amongst heaps of awful movies – a gem one only finds every so often.
The Narrator (Humphries) lays it all out: Mary (Bethany Whitmore as a child, Collette as an adult) is an eight-year-old Australian girl, bullied in school, mistreated by her kleptomaniac, drunk mother and neglected by her factory-worker father. She has no friends. Max (Seymour-Hoffman) is an obese, middle-aged New Yorker who has Asperger’s Syndrome. He has no friends either. When Mary finds the strange name “M. Horowitz” in a phone book and decides to write to him, it’s the start of an unlikely friendship spanning two continents and twenty years and enduring countless hardships.
Directed, written and designed by Australian animator Adam Elliot, Mary and Max may at first seem inaccessible because of its arthouse sensibilities – there’s a misconception that claymation is only ever used to make either films for very young children, or bizarre adaptations of Kafka’s Metamorphosis. The delightfully whimsical style here is very comfortable, honest and real, raw emotions balanced with an appropriate sprinkling of black humour.
To get an idea for the feel of the movie, take the heartbreaking opening sequence of Pixar’s Up and stretch that to 80 minutes. The movie’s childlike honesty belies a large range of very real and mature themes, making this not ideal for very young children, but something that older kids will appreciate. Danny Boyle’s film Millions, also about a young outcast kid making sense of life and the world at large, comes to mind.
Unlike such claymation films as Henry Selick’s The Nightmare Before Christmas and Coraline and Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride, Mary and Max doesn’t derive most of its charm from being dark and grotesque. The characters feel so real that their appearances are the only thing remotely caricature-like. Through their letters to and fro, Mary and Max work through issues such as making friends, dealing with bullying and teasing, approaching relationships and so on. Just as Max mentors Mary, so the young girl has a thing or two to teach him. The film tracks as their lives progress, Max winning the New York lottery, Mary going on to study in university and get married, all the way up until they finally meet face-to-face in New York.
I’ve known someone with Asperger’s Syndrome for a very long time, and being this person’s friend, I was surprised at how accurately the movie portrayed the disorder. Max decides that he likes being an “Aspie”, that there’s no point in finding a “cure”, and that it’s all about working around the anxiety attacks, sensory overload and social awkwardness that is part and parcel of the “syndrome”. Max finds solace in order, routine and comfort foods like his invention, the chocolate hot dog. “If only there was a mathematical equation for love,” he sighs.
One feels as much for Mary as for Max, the young girl lacking the life experience, with tragedy and heartbreak heaped onto her. From having a school bully pee on her lunch, to being unlucky in love and unable to have a good relationship with her parents, let alone any friends, it’s hard not to immediately want to give the awkward bespectacled girl with the birthmark on her forehead a great big hug.
I spent the whole movie fighting back tears – partly because of how genuinely moving it was, but also how happy I was that here was a wonderful film that had got everything right. While charming and beautiful throughout, the movie isn’t afraid to offer a real and unflinching perspective, and never once feels preachy or contrived. There are very few movies that can truly be called “life-changing” – this is one of them.
RATING: 5/5 STARS