As promised, I have decided to award the next Graf Recommends distinction to a relatively unknown stop-motion animation film. This is to further illustrate why The Boxtrolls isn’t worth your time. Who’s the lucky winner? Why none other than the 2009 Australian film Mary and Max. I absolutely love this film as its brutally honest commentary on loneliness and friendship. It’s dark, armed with vicious wit, and yet incredibly poignant all throughout its 90 minute runtime. I absolutely recommend this to anyone that wants to see a masterfully crafted story told through the lost art of clay-mation and cannot say how refreshed I feel after watching the film.
Mary Daisy Dinkle (Bethany Whitmore/ Toni Collette) is an unfortunate 8-year old living in Mount Waverly Australia in 1976. Her mother is an alcoholic, chain-smoking kleptomaniac and her father is a reclusive blue collar worker who attaches the strings to tea packets. Mary has no friends. Despite having an unfortunate birthmark on her forehead and generally being teased and bullied by the other children at school, Mary is an incredibly curious child that is keen on learning everything she can about the world around her.
One day, while her mother is out ‘borrowing’ supplies from the local post-office, Mary hits upon the idea of writing someone on the other side of the world to ask whether or not babies come from the same place as they do in Australia. According to her grandfather, who has recently passed away at the start of the film, babies come from the bottom of beer glasses, a fact Mary is utterly intrigued by and one she is compelled to explore further.
After randomly selecting a prospective pen-pal in New York City, she sends her crudely scribbled inquiries to a Mr. Max Jerry Horowitz (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), as well as a bar of chocolate. Max is a morbidly obese, middle-aged Jew-turned-Atheist that lives alone at the top of a decaying domicile. He attends Over-eaters Anonymous meetings and is prone to severe anxiety attacks. Plagued by his eccentricities and his inability to form meaningful relationships with anyone, Max is gripped by a sudden uncontrollable panic attack after reading Mary’s letter.
Eventually Max settles down and responds to Mary’s letter by both answering her sporadic questions and offering up a few of his own. Mary is naturally thrilled to have made an actual friend and the two begin a shaky correspondence exchanging letters, questions, and anecdotes about their lives. One faithful day, a particularly sensitive question posed by Mary results in Max being institutionalized and diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome. Once released however, Max resumes his friendship with Mary and the two proceed to write each other for the next several decades keeping each other updated on their thoughts, feelings, and the general events of their otherwise lonely and depressed lives.
The film itself is written and directed by Adam Elliot who is also known for his inventive Oscar-winning short Harvie Krumpet. Elliot is a master at finding humor is the darkest of places as this film touches on a number of very hard-hitting subjects such as isolation, depression, suicide, abandonment, loneliness and of course – severe mental illnesses. The best way to describe Mary and Max is that it’s tragically funny, often highlighting the idiosyncrasies of the characters to instill a bit of wit into an otherwise highly dramatic scene.
The animations are reminiscent of the Wallace and Gromit films, albeit on a much grander and more detailed scale. The art direction is simply masterful as Elliot creates a unique tone for both character’s surroundings that are representative of the dreariness of their respective lives. Max’s world is full of grays and deep shadows that are symbolic of his inability to connect with his fellow humans and of his rampant pessimism. Mary’s are more of a Suburban Sepia representative of her isolation and a desire to break out into the beautiful world around her. It reminded me a lot of something like The Wizard of Oz that cuts from muted tones to a rich vibrant world wherein the character finds acceptance and happiness.
Elliot’s use of color is masterful and plays a significant part in the development of Mary and Max’s relationship. Fairly early on we see the blossoming of friendship in that the only things in Max’s world that are highlighted with color are the various items that Mary has given him through her letters and packages. I am particularly fond of this cinema technique where the director highlights key items or individuals with color in contrast to the otherwise black and white, muted tones of the rest of the film. We see it in Schindler’s List, we see it in all the Frank Miller movies like Sin City, and it is absolutely essential to the narrative of Mary and Max.
This film is surely one that stands out in my own mind because I have a very real and personal connection to the story. I myself have a pen-pal that is also lives on the other side of the world (not really, but California might as well be). While we were good friends beforehand, I know all too well the emotions and anxiety associated with sending snail-mail. The months of silence, the crippling doubts about whether or not you’ve alienated a good friend, the fear that your letter simply got lost through the cracks…The emotions are all there and lend themselves to making such an impersonal relationship all the more meaningful. The letters are more than just friendly correspondence. They are constant reminders that – however depressing or hopeless your life may seem – you are never truly alone. I absolutely love my pen-pal and drop whatever it is I’m doing to drink up each and every word she has written again and again.
I cannot say enough good things about Mary and Max, and simply have to give it my full recommendation as a must-see. For the time being it’s on Netflix and definitely should be added to your watch-list immediately. The animations are superb, the story is simple yet powerful, and for a black comedy, you will find this second to none. It’s definitely an stop-motion film for adults as the themes are predominantly darker and more subversive than your run of the mill children’s movie, but that shouldn’t stop you as you will thoroughly enjoy this memorable and humorous little film.
The Bottom Line:
Just trust me on this one. I mean when have I ever led you astray? It’s dark, poignant and tragically hysterical. TRAGICALLY HYSTERICAL. How could you possibly pass up an oxymoron like that?
P.S. Here is the link to Harvie Krumpet to give you a taste of what to expect.
P.P.S . If my pen-pal is reading this, I’ll have your letter in the mail sometime next week