Written & Directed by Adam Elliot
A two-fold coming-of-age narrative ‘Mary and Max’ (2009) charters the progression of Mary’s, a young, ‘chubby’ and socially anxious Australian into a woman, friendship with Max, a middle-aged Atheistic Jew in America. Pen pals, a support system, their friendship grows as Mary seeks an escape from her abusive, sherry-soaked mother Vera, all marvellous narrated by Australian treasure Barry Humphries. At random, fascinated by the states, Mary picks an address from a U.S phonebook and hopes to receive a reply to her letter. Gradually, as life moves on the pair grow distant, and after taking a degree in psychology, Mary uses her experiences with Max, who suffers from anxiety and lives in isolation due to his Asperger’s syndrome, as a case study for a book.
Written & directed by Adam Elliot, this stop-motion feature refuses to tread lightly on a plethora of usually difficult to digest themes. Not limiting itself to, but including anxiety, isolation, depression, obesity, addiction & substance abuse, friendship & ultimately forgiveness. In traditional Aussie style, these subjects are the basis of comedy, but not distastefully so, rather hyper-realism. They offset the grim, scathing commentary which scrapes the bones of truth, and leads us to smile while tears well our eyes. The blossoming friendship Max and Mary develop, and the falters they share as they hold grudges with one another, is entirely genuine, having been based on Elliot’s own experiences.
In a world which dictates itself in monochrome, a symphony of colour is located in the emotive spectrum Mary and Max covers. Colour is non-existent, with a simple crimson used to denote aspects of a character’s style, such as a hat or a coat. A profoundly ugly, callous, and cruel world surrounds itself in exquisite design, this is a masterpiece of animation. This method of stop-motion accentuates the illustrated depiction of anxiety, the shudders, and uncontrollable shakes. It bolsters the confusion Max feels to why he is rejected by society, owing to his disconnection from a misunderstanding towards autism. Neither tool overshadows the other, working in tandem to develop a story. The animation compliments the characters, and the accessibility of the writing ties the animation deeper into the audience’s mindset.
Unravelling the multitude of layers Elliot weaves throughout the narrative, ‘Mary and Max’ speaks to all, and years after the film’s initial release its premise, or at least an aspect of which, has become remarkably poignant. Isolation, interaction and correspondence, key topics as many of us sit separately from loved ones. In that no one is owed a reply, no one is owed communication and that the guilt-tripping of someone for living their life, by extension ‘ignoring’ yours, is not excusable, but is understandable. Explanations as to why Max refused to speak to Mary about his diagnosis of autism, Asperger’s specifically, and Mary’s crippling loneliness following a break-up, become examinations as to the dangers of co-dependency, but equally the reluctance to seek help.
Aspergers. It’s a subject many become fearful to engage, principally due to a lack of knowledge, an understandable concern given its disproportionate level of openness in the general public. Troublingly, it has become an almost ‘taboo’ subject, where people retract, rather than learn, out of worry of offending. ‘Mary & Max’ is unapologetic in its depictions of Max’s life with Asperger’s, and it should be applauded by simply making this a fact. It isn’t a ‘trait’, it isn’t a ‘quirk’, and Max considers this an aspect of who he is.
It’s a representation with honesty and tragically leads to Max’s eventual issues with mental health, social issues, and eventual collapse into depression. ‘Mary and Max’ isn’t easy viewing, it can be unpleasant, but the thing is that despite its animated nature, this is perhaps one of cinema’s most accessible, corporeal pieces into everyday mental health. Phillip Seymour Hoffman offers a great deal of Max’s characterisation, strengthening the caricature of Darren Bell’s sculptures. There’s an openness, an innocent, unfiltered honesty, to how Hoffman plays the role, which is accurate for a character living with Asperger’s, who doesn’t see fault with how he talks or interacts with people, despite their abuse and scolding.
Equally, Toni Collette and Bethany Whitmore (as young Mary) convey an innocence which evolves into a strong woman. Unsurprisingly, Collette carries tremendously mesmeric humour in the film, only being outdone by Renée Geyer as the detestably wonderful Vera. It’s a necessary levity in an otherwise dramatic film, particularly in its ingenuousness concerns of suicide. The depictions of bodily harm aren’t comedic or treated with disdain, they are addressed and handled with dignity, an astonishing feat given Eliot’s lyrical humour throughout the film. Then the finale, a shattering moment of life’s obscurity and the true testament of valuing our relationships to anyone and everyone. That there isn’t a weakness in addressing and accepting our battles with mental health, but strength in recognising when we need help, and in Max’s case, an unfortunate escape. No judgements are present, merely a solemn moment of tenderness captured.
A remarkably simplistic story, of two unlikely friends – continents apart, tells us in a barbarically brutal, but extraordinarily raw and touching manner, that even as the black dogs howl at the doors, there is someone who will listen. ‘Mary and Max’ treads headfirst into the harrowing cluster of various mental health topics, reminding us that in the seeming futility of life that there is hope, there is help and there are options – whether this is our favourite chocolates, a television show, medication, therapy, or a potent memory of someone we cherish. It reminds the downtrodden that deep down, just over the precipice of oblivion, that there is a light which doesn’t go out. All woven into a gorgeously crafted, sentimentally comedic Aussie delight.
Review originally published for In Their Own League: https://intheirownleague.com/2020/05/30/mental-health-awarenss-month-retrospective-review-mary-and-max/