Director: Adam Elliot
Cast: Toni Collette, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Eric Bana
Watch Mary and Max online in the UK: Amazon Prime
When was the last time you wrote someone a letter? Mary and Max, a tale of two unlikely pen pals, captures something of that old-fashioned epistolary magic, as we see the young girl from Melbourne write a message to someone picked completely at random from a phone book. That someone turns out to be the middle-aged Max from New York. She’s eight and he’s nearer 48, but they have problems to share – and share them they do.
Mary is a lonely misfit and not the sharpest tool in the box (her maths work in school, in a nice throwaway touch, reads “6 x 0 = 4”), and she longs to express herself outside of her bullied school existence and stern parents. She finds that outlet in the form of her missives to Max, whom she doesn’t even know when she first puts pen to paper: it’s the act of reaching out, of making some meaningful connection, that’s at the heart of this poignant film.
Max, too, is sorely in need of a friend – it’s one of his life goals – as he goes about his isolated urban life with a bemusement about everything and everyone around him. He likes chocolate, spaghetti, and the word “Vladivostock” – and, it seems, writing to Mary. But her letters spark panic attics as much as reassuring catharsis, and it’s this complicated dynamic that writer-director Adam Elliot sinks his teeth into over 90 short but remarkably stuffed minutes.
Max, we learn, has Asperger’s, and Elliot goes some way to capturing Max’s weary perception of the world, desaturating everything into a sea of earthy greys and grimy browns. The two lead voices, Toni Collette and Philip Seymour Hoffman, are a perfect match for the script’s dour but hopeful tone. Hoffman, in particular, is unrecognisable in his growling melancholy, delivering one of his most distinctive performances, despite never being seen on screen; he brings Max a real heart, despite his somewhat downbeat and detached nature, and that sensitivity allows Mary and Max to discuss all manner of topics with a frank honesty. Across the many years of their exchange, we see everything from depression to body shaming tackled humanely and delicately – a range of topics that makes this stop-motion animation decidedly not for children.
And yet there’s humour to be found between the grim lines. Elliot crafts his clay puppets with all the lumpy weight of their problems on show, and their ungainly but realistic appearance sets the tone for their oddly amusing, amusingly odd friendship; Collette (who voices Mary with a sweet innocence that steers clear of anything sickly) and Hoffman deftly juggle grief and alcoholism with quirky facts and amusingly unexpected questions, producing almost inappropriate laughter while ensuring that things remain moving and never mawkish. Mediating that balance is Barry Humphries, whose dry narration knits the whole thing together.
The result is a uniquely dark animation, one that would make a fitting companion piece to Channel 4’s Flowers. A loving tribute to the value of communication and support in an often alienating society, the film still resonates even in an age where letters are a rarity. There’s something more timeless underneath those handwritten pages – a comedy of the grotesque in its most mundane form.
Mary and Max is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.