[Review] - Mary And Max (2009)

Courtesy of Icon Entertainment
A few weeks ago, at the announcement that Television Ontario would be cancelling their long running Saturday Night At The Movies programme, I wrote what I hoped was an impassioned argument for keeping the programme on air, citing how it had effected my life. But perhaps the better argument will be this review for a film that, if it weren't for SNatM, I probably never would have known existed. And my life would be the poorer for it. As it stands now however, I will actively seek it out on DVD, and thus Saturday Night At The Movies will have put a penny in somebodies pocket, reaffirmed my viewership, and made me happy, for not the first, but what will increasingly become closer to the last time. In fact, this may well be the last time that programme surprises and inspires me, and that makes me saddest of all.

Mary and Max is a clay, stop-frame animation film that is not intended for the young, and will be the film I show to anyone who ever suggests that "cartoons are for kids." This one is decidedly not. It deals with the "greater issues" of life, tackling subjects like depression, autism, asexuality, irreligion, child abuse, parental neglect, body image, bullying, suicide and the indecipherable nature of humanity. And while the film does reach some pretty dark places, it maintains a wicked sense of humour while doing so. The result is one of the funniest films I've seen in some time, certainly the funniest that also required a sinus-infection amount of tissues.

Hit the jump for the review, which contains spoilers that have also killed a large number of fish.

"Do you have a pet kangaroo? When I was born, my father left my mother and me on a kibbutz. She shot herself with my uncle's gun when I was 6. Do you like chocolate hot dogs?" ~ Max

This is an example of the sort of mood whiplash that defines Mary and Max, a film that captures the viewer right from the first moment. The nearly monochromatic film, with only the occasional blast of red, opens with a slide show of eccentric mailboxes, and very quickly, the guiding force of Barry Humphries' narration takes control and never relents. I'll admit to having a book in hand while the film played, which was swiftly set to the side as I became engrossed in the whimsical story. Opening in 1976 Australia, the film at first focuses on Mary, an 8 year old girl who has no friends. You feel an immediate sympathy with her, as you also do with Max once you meet him, as the film is able to balance the absolute dreadfulness of their lives with a level of absurdity that takes the edge off.

Mary has a birth mark the colour of poo, the movie begins. And so begins her journey to find a friend, mostly just to have someone to ask questions. A random name stolen from the post office phone book leads her to Max, a 44 year old obese man in New York City who suffers from anxiety attacks, and is eventually diagnosed with Asperger syndrome. It is Max who carries the bulk of the dramatic load in the film, and Philip Seymour Hoffman voices him unrecognisably with near perfection. Their relationship is built on desperation and the sort of brutal honest that can only come from the written word, where there is no immediate response, so all emotions must be laid bare. The film lulls you at first, you see, with dead fish and humorous grave stones, into thinking that despite it's noir colouring this is simply a black comedy. But if you don't spring a leak when Mary excuses her writing as her tears are causing her words to smudge, then there might be something wrong with you.

The film was written and directed by Adam Elliot, who won an Academy Award for his similar short Harvie Krumpet, but was shut out of even being nominated for this wonder of a film when IFC opted not to release it in the US theatrically, yet another piece of evidence that the Oscars mean nothing. The animation is amazing, and Elliot clearly knows what he is doing both on the page and before the camera. He never allows the story to take the easy, safe (and yes, happy) route, while also making certain it never looses it's sense of humour. It is a hard balance to maintain, and few that try are successful. Even when things are at their darkest, and you hope that things will improve for these two mismatched heroes, and then they don't, the film still makes you laugh.

Occasionally, the film seems to deviate, for Max after he has a turn of luck, and Mary when she seems to find love, and while these segments are cumbersome, they are brief, and lead to ultimately more grief, which is where the real story lies. Because, through the blackest of comedy and the least expected of styles, Elliot tackles almost innumerable subjects that most films wouldn't. Or if they did, they'd try one, and they'd do it so heavy handedly that it would be unbearable. Maybe because it is such a pile of horrors that it doesn't overwhelm. By the time the a bit of unpleasantness has reared it's head, it's already moving to the side for the next one. We don't linger on any one discomfort long enough for it to beat us down. And the film, while treating the subjects seriously, never treats them direly. There is room enough, the film suggests, within even the worst of situations for a laugh to be found. It is only nearest the end, when all hope has been completely abandoned, that the film forgoes the gags for a brief moment. It is a brief moment though, and the darkness passes with an instructional "fuck off."

I've said before that there are no good and bad films, only memorable and forgettable films of varying degrees. I was wrong. I've felt this before, passingly, but I'm sure I was wrong now. Mary and Max is a good film. It is properly good, the sort of film that should be shown in classrooms (and I'll be suggesting it to several teachers I know). It has message and meaning and skill, and makes you fall in love with damaged good. That it took me three years to discover is next to criminal, as this is the sorts of film that should be lifted high and had it's praises sung. This is the sort of film that makes me love films. And you should really watch it, as soon as you can.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.


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