‘Mary and Max’ is an unconventional story in an unconventional medium, combining a couple of unconventional lives in a tale that is at once dark, funny, moving and absorbing. Sound like an overhyped intro? Well, it might be, but if you’ll allow me just a few moments of your time I’ll explain exactly why I think this film is worthy of it.
But first, a little by way of explanation of what the film’s about. It’s a claymation centred on a young girl named Mary, who lives in a small Australian town with her alcoholic mother, her shed-loving father and her pet rooster. Her life is far from perfect. But one day she decides to write to someone in New York to find out if babies come from the bottom of beer glasses there too. The man her letter finds is Max, a lonely, middle-aged New Yorker with Asperger’s syndrome. So begins a correspondence that will span over a decade and take in all manner of major life events that befall these two lonely people.
So why is this so special? Firstly, the atmosphere created by writer/director Adam Elliot is tailor-made for combining serious, dark issues with genuinely funny moments. The claymation is designed in a way that is a caricature of the ordinary, a childlike parody of the reality that these lonely souls inhabit. The details, both intelligent and amusing, serve to make the space one which is easy to identify with, but also distanced enough for us to be able to laugh at the tougher moments (and believe me, there are a LOT of those). The scoring is equally impressive, adopting a light, bouncy orchestral theme that bubbles the plot along at the perfect pace, suggesting a light tone now and then but also jumping in with mournful strings to supplement the tragedies that are suffered in Mary and Max’s tumultuous existences.
Secondly, the characters themselves are brilliantly written. Mary’s personal plight is so poignant that you can’t help but feel sorry for her, and yet her positivity and light-heartedness mean that we’re never left to languish in an unbearable state of pity. Meanwhile Max’s difficult life as an Asperger’s sufferer is wrought for all of the pain and mirth it can hold, but, as with Mary, we are never allowed to pity him. Instead we are invited to join Max in believing that it is far better to accept who he is, for both the good and bad sides of that, than to pity him and see him as different.
Thirdly, the inventive, outlandish and hilarious collection of supporting characters are just about the most imaginative inventions you are likely yo see in an animated world this year. Everyone and everything is bursting with a hyper-real life that is pitched perfectly to the tragi-comic tone of the main story, from Max’s goldfish(es) Henry who are doomed to a Greek-style hell of perpetual deaths to Mary’s well-meaning but world-weary alcoholic mother, whose penchant for sherry is hidden behind a thinly veiled habit of drinking it from a teacup.
Perhaps the most ingenious aspect of ‘Mary and Max’, however, lies in the premise itself. As a story of tragic loneliness and detachment from society, and of lives that are always only ‘nearly’ where they want to be, it is a masterstroke to paint at its heart a written correspondence between these two characters: so different and yet so similar. There is a sense that their friendship could never have happened in person, but at the same time that its distance condemns them to a limbo of ‘nearly’ friendship, and one doomed to the inevitable misunderstanding and unnecessary offense that friendship via letter (or email, or facebook or any other mediation) is liable to end with.
But yet somehow this friendship endures, through thick and thin, and enriches the lives of both characters, as well as all of those who are lucky enough to watch it. And if you do, I can guarantee that you’ll laugh, you’ll cringe, and you may even cry – I know I did.
‘Mary and Max’ is on limited U.K. release from tomorrow.
This article was first posted on October 21, 2010