Films like Mary and Max come along so rarely that when they do, they must be hugged tightly and treasured. For those with an aversion to gritty social realism, it is a tonic for the soul. It is a tale so delicate that it might shatter if nudged lightly, a whimsical take on how an eight year old girl and an autistic man find lifelong friendship through a chance encounter. Their decade and longer correspondence proves crucial to the power of the ending's revelation: we do not get to choose our warts, but we can choose our friends, and Mary and Max choose correctly.
The film has been branded as 'for adults' by some concerned viewers for its frank subject matter; anxiety, suicide, and mental illness to rattle off a few. Yet to do this is to miss the entire point. The warmth of the titular friendship is what carries the pair, radiating an unconditional love that lights up even the muddy browns of Mount Waverly and dreary greys of New York. It is a language that dogs and eight year old girls know all too well.
Max comes to the same conclusions. In a wonderful voice performance by the late great Phillip Seymour Hoffman, he breathes husky life into a man who refuses to be solely defined by his disability. It is a voice full of calculated whimsy and character, putting to shame every one of the celebrities who are cast for exposure (a recent worrying trend in animation). Close your eyes and listen to how he huffs and puffs his way to the ends of sentences. Hear how he pauses for commas, and how his inflection mirrors the way he observes life and its many tricks; as matter of fact. The sum of his reasonings are like punctuation in itself (recall the brilliant comedic timing of Max rattling off his favourite lottery numbers). Max looks all around him, and observes peculiar truths that unintentionally reveal the silliness of modern living. And along the way, we chuckle and realise we agree.
If you saw the Oscar winning short Harvie Krumpet, then you'll recognise Adam Elliot's distinct style of stop-motion animation, lovingly crafted through a painstakingly lengthy process (no one's really taking the time to do this anymore, except for Laika and Aardman, and even they struggle to capture a new level of appeal with flashier counterparts on surrounding screens). His characters have a startling way of showing emotion, as if they were one of those plastic squeeze toys. Their eyes bulge in panic, their whole bodies seem to vibrate with urgency. But their features are squished in and frozen - anxiety stops them dead in their tracks. You can feel the labour of love in the construction of the world. Oodles of fishing line become rain. KY jelly slops around as water. It's real life, re-imagined with crayons, squiggly lines and the brain of a child at play. Their letters contain many a metaphor packed full of flavour, and the world around them responds.
For the duration of its runtime, Mary and Max refuses to swoop down to the despairing depths that is expected of its subject matter. And why should it? Its own characters refuse to buy into the genre's typical ailments. Their lives are seemingly rubber stamped with endings, yet they never heed these calls. Elliot disarms any preconceived notions of how a story of mental illness should play out, because Mary and Max just don't see it that way. Some might call it twee or juvenile, but only because they've lost sight of how powerful the screen can be as a tool for hope. The film is a testament to the touching power of friendship and imagination. It is how the world should look like, according to a lonely eight year old girl, and his autistic penpal from New York. There's no need for a tonal cure.