Netflix Pick: “Mary and Max” Will Break Your Damn Heart
Tuesday, February 28, 2012 1 Comment
If there’s any place better known for availability of quirky independent films than the eclectic library of titles available on Netflix’s instant streaming service, it’s the Sundance Film Festival. Held annually in Park City, Utah, the festival is the premier location for a wide and varied selection of independent films. In 2009, the festival opened with a strange, Australian stop-motion film called “Mary and Max.” Often, the opening film is not one of the strongest of the festival, but I remembered hearing how surprisingly fantastic this one managed to be. Did this weird little film deserve such praise? Find out after the break!
“Mary and Max” tells the story of a friendless little girl in suburban Australia named Mary Daisy Dinkle who decides to send a letter to a random person from a New York phone book. The man she picks out is a lonely, obese, Asperger’s-laden man named Max Horovitz. These unlikely pen pals exchange a series of letters describing their unique viewpoints to each other as they share their respective life-stories-in-progress. Written and directed by Adam Elliot, “Mary and Max” is filmed entirely in stop-motion, also known as claymation. Do not be fooled, however; this is no family film. It’s a bleak tale about a friendship between an adult who has trouble understanding normal social behavior and lonely little girl who is too young to understand much of her own troubled home situation. It doesn’t shy away from the darker side of what that premise is capable of exploring, ultimately doing so with tremendous success.
You may be wondering why it is that such a story merited the use of a stylized, stop-motion approach. It is, after all, a simple story about characters writing letters to each other. Where the film shines, though, is its strangely whimsical approach to the film’s many troubling themes. Both characters deal with crippling anxiety and depression at various points throughout their lives. They both struggle tremendously with trying to understand how other people work and how they can manage to fit in. Thanks to the hyper-stylized stop-motion character designs, the film manages to juggle these very touching personal themes with an overall narrative style that is full of dark humor and endearing innocence.
Visually, the film is incredibly striking. Mary’s Australian suburbia is seen through the sun-bleached, hopeful filter of a sepia-esque color scheme, while Max’s cold and alienating New York City is a stark and unwavering black and white. When Mary sends Max parcels bearing gifts from her hometown, they remain red and brown. This contrast works brilliantly, as you can see how visibly these characters are affecting each other’s lives, even without ever actually meeting. It’s a truly wonderful visual style, enhanced by pitch-perfect musical choices throughout the film.
Speaking of the fantastic audio, it’s absolutely worth mentioning the wonderful vocal performances by the cast. Phillip Seymour Hoffman in particular turns in a spectacular performance as Max that is guaranteed to make the character sympathetic to even the most hardened soul. The narration by Barry Humphries is also a joy to listen to, making light of some very dark material without ever feeling inappropriate or in poor taste.
Overall, “Mary and Max” is a surprisingly wonderful film. Its whimsical tone is fun and engaging, but beneath all that style is a poignant tale of friendship and understanding that is guaranteed to tug on the heartstrings. That is, if you have them.
Please don’t check for heartstrings, you might kill yourself.