Written and Directed by: Adam Elliott
Starring: Bethany Whitmore, Toni Collette, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Eric Bana, Barry Humphries
Adam Elliot’s Mary and Max is a sad film about two unlikely pen pals who are lucky to have found each other. Elliot previously won an Oscar for his short film Harvie Krumpet which was about a man who lived a life of disaster but who relentlessly found the joy of life. In Mary and Max the joy is much harder to find, but it’s there.
Mary Dinkle (Voiced by Bethany Whitmore and Toni Collette) is a lonely 8-year-old Australian girl whose mother is an incompetent alcoholic, her father a kind but absent taxidermy hobbyist. Max Horowitz (voice of Philip Seymour Hoffman) is an obese, middle-aged New Yorker with a heap of emotional instability and social anxiety. By chance, on a particularly sad day, Mary sends a letter to an address she found at random from the New York phone book, and it ends up in Max’s mailbox. The two begin a correspondence that will last the rest of their lives, and really that comes to drive the course of their lives. They send each other little gifts, and tell each other of the pain and sadness of their daily lives and in return they each receive a little companionship and a witness to their value. The correspondence grows into a proper friendship, easily the most important connection either person has in their life, but both fail to tell the other how much pain it causes them as well. Mary’s letters, full of innocent sadness, lonelyness and tales of bullying unlock in Max long-repressed memories which induce crippling anxiety attacks. For Mary, Max’s letters fill a gap left by neglectful parents and she begins to rely on him for emotional support, so when his own difficulties prevent him from responding it sparks in Mary a number of dependencies and abandonment issues that she will carry with her for life.
Mary and Max is gloomy, relentlessly so, and Elliot’s use of claymation only increases the effect. His figures are like homunculi of loneliness, with large vulnerable eyes and small (or at least timid) frames. Elliot colours Mary’s world a drab sepia, while Max’s New York is black and white, and tokens that they give to each other are bright red which, though a somewhat easy technique, is undeniably effective. Elliot’s claymation aesthetic is a brilliant medium for a story like this, because inherent in animation is a sense of child-like innocence which aligns with that of Max and Mary, so when cruelty and sadness is injected into such a gentle environment it seems so much more dark. The film is not devoid of hope, because the very fact that Max and Mary find each other suggests a certain faith in the beauty of life, and though I couldn’t term the film optimistic, I also couldn’t call it pessimistic. Some of Elliot’s choices tilt the balance into the gratuitously melancholic, but for the most part the film is so tender and so touching that it doesn’t matter. The quirks of each character flesh out the extent of their alienation while endearing them to the audience.
Mary and Max is a disarming and shockingly upsetting film experience. Lulling narration and unbelievably loveable main characters make the hardships of each so much more unbearable. By constructing such beautiful, quircky characters (especially in Mary Dinkle), Elliot makes the lows of his film resoundingly low and the experience is excrutiating.