One of the finest powers of film is its ability to transplant us into a way of life far different from our own. This is especially true of troubled individuals that often fall outside the norm and are generally avoided in society. Yet films can also be draw us into the lives of people we relate to from our own experience. Mary and Max is able to draw us into the lives of both kids of individuals.
Mary Daisy Dinkle (Toni Collette) is a young girl growing up in Melbourne, Australia, facing many of the problems of childhood compounded by her dysfunctional parents. Her general shyness means she’s unable to make friends in real life but finds another way when she begins asking life’s big questions (at least for an eight-year-old) via mail to an obese man named Max (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome.
While this might sound like an odd and bizarre relationship, the two have a common ground: they love the same show, both have a sweet tooth and both spend their lives in isolation. The friendship that develops between the two is filled with its own delightful charm as they share their thoughts, fears and feelings honestly and with a sweet sincerity often attributed to children and the mentally deficient.
The film is told almost entirely through narration and the reading of the two letters written by Mary and Max. This works in the film’s favor because the writing involved delves into the kind of specificity which would be in the written correspondence, but through funny visualizations, and the actual act of it being spoken aloud, it becomes humorous.
In fact, Mary and Max is easily the funniest film I saw from 2010 (Sorry Easy A). The film is filled with all sorts of smart and hilarious jokes. Some go back to the specificity of the writing, others involve more complex visual gags. A few of them play on audience knowledge as both Mary and Max are sweetly naïve people who see the world in a way rather different from the average person.
The clay animation certainly helps the comedic elements work. The film gets away with showing some darker and more mature content than you might expect, but in a whimsical way which never makes it feel like a jarring tonal shift. That being said, it is a story that is very dark at times and something the average child should probably not see without parental supervision.
As fun as it all is, the film becomes a bit overwrought in the last act. There certainly is a dramatic overtone traced throughout the entire picture, but the film shifts gears into high melodrama in the last fifteen minutes. The beats could still work but in conjunction with some of the visuals and music, it becomes a bit overwrought.
Still, by the end of the film I was smitten by the tale of Mary and Max. It’s a sweet funny tale that I enjoyed from beginning to end, a delightful mix of the highs and lows of life, funny and sad, tragic and joyous. And, most importantly, it’s a film that seamlessly transported me into the psyche of two truly interesting characters who I came to understand and empathize with effortlessly.
© 2011 James Blake Ewing