This post may contain spoilers. Read at your own discretion.
One of the first things I have to say about Adam Elliot’s “Mary and Max” is that even though it looked like a film with a twinge of a dark side, little did I expect to see what I did when I actually watched it. What I saw was the human need for companionship laid bare in the form of clay characters. Who would have known that one of the most poignant aspects in life would represent itself in a way that is so comically exaggerated?
There are a lot of comparisons to “Wallace and Gromit” of 2005, which I could attest to in terms of appearance. But there is anything but sugarcoating in terms of the message the film portrays, nor of its humour. “Mary and Max” entices the shaking of our sensibilities, dealing with subjects such as death, abuse, suicide, religion, illness, violence, and a very subtle hint of sexuality that was used more for comic effect than anything else. Yes, the film’s humour is very adult — not necessarily crude, as the humour was relatively clean, considering. It was adult in terms of the mental level that one has to be to appreciate the comedy.
“Mary and Max” begins with introducing Mary Dinkle, an eight-year-old girl living in Australia. She has a kleptomaniac mother who has a drinking problem, and a father with a fascination for taxidermy. She has a weird birthmark on her forehead and is devoid of proper companionship. Out of boredom (and in the middle of her mother’s stealing sprees in a post office), she picks a random name out from a New York residential directory to be her friend. Around this time, the viewer is introduced to the other main character, Max Horowitz, who isn’t all that different from his new pen pal. Save for the fact that he is much older and lives in New York, the 44-year-old Jewish bachelor also doesn’t have a much of a social life to speak of. One contributing factor would be his Asperger Syndrome. With their shared love for the same television show, lack of physical friends (both having different reasons), and penchant for sweets, they begin a correspondence that starts with exchanging questions and knick-knacks, eventually growing into a deep friendship that spans decades and life milestones.
While the viewer gets to see both the adult and child minds in friendship, it takes a more adult one to rationalise the salvific effects of connecting to the human person. The correspondence between the two doesn’t come anywhere close to being “creepy” or “pedophilia-like”, and I guess that may be one of the speculations behind the friendship between two people with a 36-year gap. But that is not what is picked up at all upon watching “Mary and Max”. Their friendship was pure and is as real to the viewer as it is to Mary and Max. There is no age-related issue, or maybe it isn’t the focus of exploration. What is explored is the increase in confidence and even the acknowledgment of life purpose thanks to a friendship. To some degree there is some validation of one’s existence when one is able to fulfill the inherent human need of companionship. This is not to say that we should care about what others think all the time, but rather the acknowledgment that we need to have that emotional bond to sustain us. “Mary and Max” is a film that exhibits two characters who were not able to find the solace of friendship in anyone else, a condition so extreme that the finding of friendship in each other and all that it entails affects their will to live or die. Loneliness is tantamount to emotional death and they gave each other the chance to live.
A pivotal part of the film would be the big fight between Mary and Max, whereby Mary — who goes from recluse to thriving university student due to her new-found confidence in their friendship — wants to write her thesis on looking for the cure for Asperger Syndrome. This involves her dissecting the letters exchanged in their correspondence, and essentially turning Max into a case study. Her resolve is practically unbreakable, and is met with awe by her husband. Max, on the other hand, upon finding out, interprets her intentions as exploitative and that of betrayal. He lashes out at Mary and severs all contact, sending both of them back into their ways of old.
Max endures an increasing frequency of panic attacks and Mary continues her own downward spiral. She destroys her newly published thesis and sinks into bouts of drinking, overeating, and self-pity. To make matters worse, her spouse reveals himself to be gay and leaves her for a new lover in New Zealand (who he ironically meets through written correspondences). However, Max is the first to acknowledge the emotional impact of their falling out, and is the first to make amends by sending his entire collection of figurines inspired by their shared favourite television show. It is assumed that it takes a couple weeks to reach Australia, where a delirious Mary has a noose around her neck, a handful of Valium in her system, and on a drug-induced high, is swaying to a very dark rendition of “Que Sera Sera”. She is also found to be pregnant. It is through the wonderful serendipity of the timing of the postal delivery service and the decision of Mary’s neighbour to finally overcome his agoraphobia that Mary decides to answer her door and learn of Max’s gesture of forgiveness. Once again, they feel the validation of their own lives through each other, both realising the value of their friendship.
Gripping, moving, and inspiring, the last thing one may even consider is falling asleep during this film. “Mary and Max” is highly recommended for those who enjoy animated films, or enjoy exploring the medium, and is definitely a must-watch for those who are looking to restore or affirm their faith in humanity. The claymation is adorable yet edgy, the humour is the type that makes one raise their eyebrows before laughing, and the story successfully balances raw honesty with humour that will involve the viewer emotionally. However, one of my suggestions for anyone who wishes to see this film is to ensure they approach this film with a good mood, because will be a guaranteed — yet temporary — dip in it. I cannot imagine how one would deal with the film after having been in a bad mood. After all, the ending isn’t happy, at least in conventional terms. Then again, neither is the majority of either characters’ lives. However, the ending brings forth a sense of contentment for one of the characters long after doubting the realism of anything, and perhaps for the other character, the realisation of it long before.