Mary and Max is a sad, yet heartwarming tale about the cruelty of people towards those who are different, the strength of friendship, and the serendipity that can bring those together who may need each other the most. This film’s stop motion animation is stylized in a way that shows both the absurd and the realism of the the issues the characters must face. This Australian film takes place in the 70s and 80s and is about the titular characters, Mary (Bethany Whitmore/Toni Colette) and Max (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Mary is a young, homely Australian girl living with her distant father and alcoholic mother. Max is a middle aged obese man from New York City, who has Asperger syndrome and finds it difficult to understand people, while people likewise do not understand him. Both of them are in search for a friend, and one day, when Mary is eight, she picks a name at random out of a phone book, who happens to be Max, and sends him a letter. They begin to bond over their shared interest in chocolate and a show called “The Noblets”, and the fact that they finally have someone to talk to. The film follows their 20 years of correspondence and the friendship that grows from it.
Nearly the entire film is told either through narration or their letters, and there is very little actual dialogue. I tend to dislike narrators, but this one (voiced by Barry Humphries) “reads” well; very much like a story book. But don’t let the quaint style fool you as this film tackles some pretty heavy issues such as depression, the horrors of 1970s mental treatments, suicide, and death. Even the start of Mary and Max’s attempts at being pen pals proves to be a rough one, with each of Mary’s letters to Max triggering an anxiety attack in him. One of which even causing him an eight month stay at a mental facility. But as the film states, the taste at a chance with friendship was too difficult for Max to ignore. A chance lottery win by Max fulfills his other life goals (these being to obtain every figurine from “The Noblets” and to have “all of the chocolate”), but it makes him realize that the last goal of gaining a friend would be one he has to seek out himself. And so he begins, once again to respond to Mary. Mary herself goes through her own troubles involving bullies, lack of self-esteem, and the neglect and eventual death of both her parents. But it is their shared letters that give them both much needed personal therapy and someone to confide in.
There are some features and scenes that stand out in the film, where the narration stops and we are left to watch what happens. Such scenes include Max winning the lottery where the background fades to black and we are left with a vignette of Max staring at the television screen with the camera moving around him. SPOILERS: Another is the scene with Mary’s attempted suicide where her memories and pictures of people float about in a dreamlike fashion, all the while a solemn version of “Que sera, sera” plays in the background :END SPOILERS. The narration is used well in that it is there to state the facts and explain how people are feeling at the moment. But it leaves the important things to be shown through visuals. Some of the more powerful messages that Mary and Max send to each other come in the form of nearly wordless packages. SPOILERS: One such example is when Max sends Mary the “M” from the typewriter with which he writes his letters, in order to articulate his feelings of anger and betrayal towards her. Mary in turn, sends a can of her favorite food, condensed milk, with “I’m sorry” written on it as a form of apology. And again, with another powerful wordless gesture, Max sends his entire beloved collection of The Noblets to show his forgiveness :END SPOILERS.
Another beautiful use of visuals, in an otherwise not very beautiful film, is the colors used. Max’s world of NYC is blacks, whites, and greys, while Mary’s suburban Australia is browns and sepia toned. We really get the feeling that they are from different worlds. The only other color shown is red, which is used for mostly lips and mouths/tongues. The only other red thing that is shown a lot is the pompom that Mary gave to Max to wear on his yamaka, and his wearing it signals when the world is “back in balance”.
Mary and Max gives us a heartwarming tale of the necessity of friendship and love, and shows us the healing properties that its comfort and happiness can give us in a confusing and puzzling world. We gain some important life lessons from Max, who tells Mary (and us) to “love ourselves first” and that “life is a sidewalk” which we cannot stray from. But it is when those sidewalks intersect where important friendships may form. The ending of the movie is a powerful one, wrapping together many emotions at once, but it provides us a good closure to the two friends whose lives were made fuller by knowing each other.