Unusual friendships in the movies are difficult to pin down. They usually run the risk of seeming creepy, inappropriate, or just too precious. That’s why you need a brilliant director like Adam Elliot to come in and suck the sentimentality right out of it. Using darkly brilliant claymation, Elliot depicts the decades-long platonic, pen pal relationship between Mary, an eight-year-old Australian girl, and Max, an obese New Yorker who suffers from Asperger’s syndrome. In the same vein as Fantastic Mr. Fox or Wallace & Gromit, Mary & Max is painstakingly crafted and wildly imaginative. But make no mistake: animation notwithstanding, this is certainly not a film for children. This supposedly true story deals with heavy subjects such as alcoholism, neurosis, and suicide.
Mary lives with her father, a factory worker, and her boozy mother, who whiles away the time guzzling cooking sherry and listening to cricket on the radio. The movie begins in 1976, and sets the scene for each of the characters. Mary’s Australia is depicted almost exclusively using sepia tones—which is fortunate for Mary, whose favorite color is brown. But she is a sad little girl, whose “poop-colored” birthmark and plain looks have made her an outcast, leaving only her pet rooster and figurines for company. One day, while her mother “borrows” envelopes from the post office, Mary picks Max’s name out of a phone book, and they begin to be “pen friends.”
Max is an outsider in his own, desperate way. His mental disability—a title that the forty-four-year-old resents—requires that he live a regimented, orderly life, as illustrated by the black and white tones of New York. This means that the slightest upset throws his world into chaos. He understands very little about people, and assumes that he has no friends because he is compulsively honest. Due to his excessive weight, Max is forced to attend Overeater’s Anonymous meetings, where a promiscuous lady constantly vexes him with her flirting and unsolicited kisses. Although he finally finds a friend in the form of Mary, who shares Max’s love of the cartoon Nobels and chocolate, the little girl’s problems cause him much consternation, so much that he can’t get through one of her letters without a few valium to take the edge off.
Watching Mary & Max, there is very little doubt that this is an Indie movie with a capital “I.” You might call “Perpetuum Mobile” by the Penguin Café Orchestra the theme song, as it is ubiquitous throughout the movie. It is unapologetically weird, and is filled with details that might puzzle or gross out closed-minded viewers. For example, whenever you watch Max at his typewriter, there is always a tight shot of his butt crack. I was reminded throughout of a Wes Anderson film, because of the characters’ incredible eccentricities. But the people in Anderson’s movies wear their quirks like badges of honor, unlike Mary and Max, who only want to be normal. The result is a much more downbeat, solemn tone, which is moderated by the silliness of the aesthetic and goofy jokes that pepper the script.
The voice acting is an extremely strong point, as well. Toni Collette and Bethany Whitmore voice Mary when she is an adult and child, respectively. Although they do convey Mary’s downtrodden personality, they also imbue a bubbliness to her that balances well with Max (performed by Philip Seymour Hoffman). Hoffman uses his deep, gruff voice to lend weight to Max’s perpetual anxieties, which he discusses at length in his letters. But it is also hilarious when Max unironically interrupts his complaints with questions such as, “Do you like kumquats?” The narration throughout the movie is spoken by Barry Humphries, who is best known for playing Bruce the Shark in Finding Nemo. He is a great choice for the film, as he can sound both amused by the silliness of the story and grave when the darker moments come.
Mary & Max sidesteps succumbing to indie twee-ness by feeling completely genuine. Elliot’s claymation perfectly conveys the oddball quality of the story, while at the same time capturing the emotional resonance of it. The movie is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, and is a wonderful combination of comedy and drama in a startling package.