Equally the the best/worst reason to get a pen-pal.
Mary and Max (2009) is an Australian stop-motion dramedy written and directed by Adam Elliot. It follows the titular Mary (Bethany Whitmore/ Toni Collette), a young and lonely girl living in the suburbs of Melbourne who one day decides to write a letter to a random stranger in the phone-book. This person turns out to be Max (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a heavily obesse man living equally-lonely in New York on the other side of the world. After exchanging several letters, the two become close pen-pals who unwittingly influence how each other perceive the world.
From the opening shot I felt like I was glimpsing back into my childhood to one of the after-school programs that would enrapture my attention with stiff animation, strange stories and childish whimsy. Granted, none of my childhood programs went to the level of drama and depressing subject matter found in Mary and Max, but it just speaks to the utter charm and incredible style the film possesses. It does unfortunately lose its sense of whimsy for moments during its second half, but overall the movie felt like a perfect encapsulation of nostalgia mixed in with some very adult themes.
According to the opening of the film, the story is apparently is based on real events. After some digging, this isn’t quite true, as director Adam Elliot stated that he used his own experience with a pen-pal in New York for the origins of the film. That being said, this story is paradoxical in how it approaches life – on one hand its achingly real and touching, but at that same moment, the plot is completely ridiculous. Most of the narrative is presented by voice-over from Barry Humphries to reinforce the goofy children’s show nature of the film, and its this element that manages to cover how thin the plotting is. And its because of this presentation that I’m hesitant to mark that down as a criticism. In many ways, the frequent moments of incredulousness seems to add to the aesthetic of the movie, while never detracting from how emotional and touching the story is. Despite how ridiculous it can apparently get, the core of the film never veers far from real issues such as mental health, disabilities, and of course relationships that span the globe.
This is also helped along by how wonderfully written and articulated the two leads are. Both the characters of Max and Mary are fleshed out to a beautiful degree through their amusing and fascinating letters to one another, and the voice-work is utterly stellar. While Barry Humphries should be provided part of the glory for his warm and pleasant narration, the talent of Phillip Seymour Hoffman shines onto the screen by bringing such an interesting character to life. Young Mary is voiced by Bethany Whitmore, with Toni Collette taking over for adult Mary and they both do such a good job that I barely registered the voice had changed at first. I doubt the film would be anywhere near as impactful if it weren’t for all the impressive performances, and for that they deserve to be commmended.
The stop-motion animation is also worth mentioning as well. This isn’t a film on the level of Aardman animation budget-wise, but it does a great job disguising its rough edges through great character and setting design. Don’t go in expecting a visual smorgasbord- those rough edges are still there, but even those contributes to the feeling of an after school children’s program. Its distinct, stylised and does great work with a limited amount.
Mary and Max speaks to both the child I was and the adult I am. Whimsical, funny and utterly enjoyable while also being thought-provoking, powerful and emotional, this is a unique, offbeat and almost essential experience from the clearly talented Adam Elliot.
General Audiences: Highly Recommended
Film Buffs: Must-see
Arthousers: Highly Recommended