Number 167 on the top 1000 films of all time is the 2009 Australian stop-motion drama - Mary and Max, directed by Adam Eliot.
Mary (Toni Colette) and Max (Philip Seymour Hoffman) tells the story of the blossoming relationship of the two titular characters. Both social outcasts, they soon find connection when they become pen pals.
I watched this film with my dad and he said he hadn't watched a film quite like that before. Neither have I. It was abstract and surreal. Dark and creepy at some points, hilarious and uplifting in others. It was a film that I had never heard off before and, apparently it never received a wider theatrical release, although it did premier at the Sundance Film Festival.
Although, I am puzzled as to why it didn't receive a wide theatrical release, as it was a brilliant film. Perhaps because it dealt with some problematic themes and it has some off-beat, dark humour. But the way, it engaged with its troubling themes was sensitive and evocative. Mary is a little girl in Australian with an alcoholic and kleptomaniac mother and a father who is more interested in taxidermy than his daughter. She has a prominent birthmark on her forehead which leads to her being bullied at school. Upon recounting this in a letter to Max, she breaks down in tears. Considering 'Mary' was only a claymation sculpture and not a real person, this was very upsetting to watch. Bethany Whitmore who played the young Mary did well to bring real humanity to the character.
Conversely Max is a morbidly obese, autistic man living in New York. Because of his autism, he finds it difficult to befriend anybody and he too is a loner. Despite this, he was an uplifting character who far from feeling sorry for himself is proud of being a self-proclaimed "aspie." It is a fundamental part of his identity and, despite what his therapist might say, is not something that needs curing. He may not understand human behaviour or why people throw away food while children starve in India, which only makes his connection with mary all the sweeter.
His lifelong goal of making a friend, a goal he realises with Mary is all too relatable and powerful. He was a pitiful character, but a likeable one. And that is down to Adam Eliot's good writing and Hoffman's good portrayal. With autistic characters, there is always the danger of making them into a cariacture of themselves, but that didn't happen here.
If I were to describe this film to anybody, it would be as a real arthouse film, mostly because of its claymation style allowed Adam Eliot to tackle themes he might not have been able to do with more traditional film. Mary and Max's environments contrast so drastically. In sunny Australia, the lighting is bright, the locations spacious, but in New York, everything is dark, gloomy and cramped. Max is alone in a crowd of people. Mary is isolated in a close-knit community.
Even the colour schemes are different. Australia is brighter with an off-colour, soft yellow. Whereas New York is a dark grey-scale, almost monochrome, representing Max's confused viewpoint of the world. But when he begins corresponding with Mary, spots of colour begin appearing, like the orange pom pom that she knits for him. He attaches this to this skullcap, which he wears, not because of how he is Jewish, but because it keeps his brain warm.
The growing relationship between the two central characters climaxes in the worse possible way. In a misguided attempt to help Max, Mary enrols in university, to study mental disorders like autism, in the hopes of curing him. Using Max as her case study, she writers a book detailing the findings of her research. But Max, believing she has exploited him and his condition, rips out the "M" key of his typewriter and mails it to her. This raises interesting ideas around "disorders" like autism. Is it really a disorder? Is it an illness that needs to be cured? What if the person is happy the way they are?
Upon realising how badly she has hurt her friend, Mary sinks into a deep depression, becoming a mirror image of her alcoholic mother. In the process, she loses her childhood sweetheart, Damian Popodopulous (Eric Bana) who leaves her for a sheep farmer in New Zealand. Her depression culminates in a suicide attempt which is set to a slowed-down version of "Que Sera Sera." This combined with the background scenery fading to black was the darkest, most haunting, but most powerful moment of the film. Mary is only saved by her neighbour who delivers a package from Max who has finally forgiven her.
Over a year later with Damien's child, Mary finally travels to New York to meet Max. Sadly, he had died earlier that morning, staring up at all of Mary's letters which he has stuck on his ceiling. One of many heart-warming moments in what is a very twisted, Grim Brothers-esque fairy tale. Amid all the surrealism and horror, there are valuable lessons to be gained about human connection.
Mary and Max was definitely a film that took me by surprise. I don't know what I was expecting, but I certainly wasn't expecting a poignant, surreal, arthouse film about the importance of friendship and loving yourself.