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The stop-motion animation of the Australian writer/director/designer Adam Elliot is nothing if not distinctive. The 42-year-old claymation artist's unique homemade-looking style is present in virtually any shot of any of his creations from any of his films.
Sculpted with bulging eyes, wobbly lines and clumpy figures, Elliot's characters look haunted but cute, as if Ralph Steadman got his hands on the cast of Gumby. An analogue artist plying his trade in a digital era, Elliot's painstaking art – hands-on in a literal sense – is a rare treat for audiences accustomed to computer effects and CGI fakery.
Like all Elliot's work, Mary and Max is vaguely autobiographical, inspired by a real-life pen pal relationship he started more than 25 years ago. Mary Daisy Dinkle (voiced by Bethany Whitmore as a child and Toni Collette as an adult) begins the film as a lonely eight-year-old girl living in Mount Waverley who writes a letter to a socially reclusive New York man, Max (voiced by Philip Seymour Hoffman) after randomly finding his postal address in an American phone book.
Teased at school, Mary sports a birthmark "the colour of poo", lives a lower-middle class existence in a quiet neighbourhood and has a kleptomaniac alcoholic for a mother.
Like much of the film, this information is relayed by the narrator, Barry Humphries, in the straight-up manner Elliot's characters often use: "To Mary, Vera always seemed wobbly. Vera liked listening to the cricket while baking. Her main ingredient was always sherry. She told Mary it was a type of tea for grown-ups that needed constant testing. Mary thought her mother tested the sherry way too much."
The disarming way Elliot goes about depicting alcoholism, mental illness and other psychological maladies is a testament to the skilful way the film balances happiness and sadness, playfulness and profundity.
Mary's sweet letters to Max – which pose questions as childlike as "Where do babies come from?" – lead him to a mental breakdown. For Max, as Humphries' silky voiceover intones, the notion of love is as foreign "as a salad sandwich". Elliot matches a heart-tugging shot of him being lowered out of his building by a crane with sounds of people on the street taunting and jeering. Max is taken to a mental hospital, diagnosed with severe depression and obesity, marinated in a cocktail of drugs and given electric shock therapy – "the usual therapeutic procedures".
It's at about this point, 40 minutes in, the cute factor of Mary and Max is overtaken by an energy far more serious and confronting. Much of the film is build-up for a story about contrasts between child and adult Mary: the sweet wide-eyed kid versus the tortured, introverted adult.
Her emotional journey culminates in a scene that is so loaded, so transfixing, so masterfully made, it is impossible to look away. After necking a handful of pills Mary stands on a chair with a noose around her neck. Que Sara Sara plays on the soundtrack. Framed photographs around her dance and hover in the air. She conducts them, as if organising and rearranging her memories.
It's a standout moment in a standout movie. Mary and Max is sad but uplifting, beautiful but haunting, and capable of shifting from whimsy to tragedy in a heartbeat.— Luke Buckmaster, The Guardian
Sat October 7, 7:30 PM, Muenzinger Auditorium
Australia; 2009; in English, Yiddish; 92 min • official site
Director: Adam Elliot, Writer: Adam Elliot, Cast: Toni Collette, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Eric Bana, Barry Humphries, Bethany Whitmore