Perhaps the single best part of our ten-year anniversary was the fact that we managed to get Cinema 1544 Shortmaster Extraordinairemeritus Phong Nguyen to make the long drive up from San Diego to present a film for us. Phong has always done a great job of bringing us underappreciated films – of his nine features before leaving town I had seen exactly none, and only one (the silent classic The Passion of Joan of Arc) had I even heard of. Invariably the films Phong has chosen are good, and some (Infernal Affairs, Waltz With Bashir) have made their way onto my unofficial mental list of great films. I think it’s safe to say that his tenth-anniversary film, Mary and Max, also makes that list.
Mary and Max is a 2009 stop-motion film written and directed by Australia’s Adam Elliot, to date his only feature-length film.
The film starts out a tiny bit jarringly, as the theme music is Penguin Cafe Orchestra’s Perpetuum Mobile, perhaps much more famous as the music currently backing Hewlett-Packard’s television advertisements:
But it’s not too hard to get beyond that once the film starts.
One of the titular stars of our film is Mary Daisy Dinkle, initially an eight-year-old Australian who loves chocolate, loves a television show called The Noblets, and is quite lonely, suffering from secondarily a facial birthmark and primarily childhood. Sometimes it’s just rough being a kid.
The other titular star is Max Jerry Horowitz, a mid-40’s obese New York shut-in who also happens to love chocolate and The Noblets, and who is himself suffering from anxiety brought on by fairly severe Asperger’s disease. The two are initially brought together by Mary, who while searching for a friend randomly selects Max’s name out of a NYC phone book she has come across and sends him a letter, setting off a long, funny, and poignant pen pal relationship.
It’s not a relationship without its struggles. The initial letter is so unexpected that it sets off a panic attack for Max, causing him to nearly not respond at all. Over the years, Mary’s letters at times cause distress to Max, and in school she dedicates herself to studying Psychology and learning about his disorder.
Meanwhile, Mary has grown up and she begins to come out of her shell despite the tragic death (in separate incidents) of both of her parents. She eventually marries her longtime crush Damien Popodopoulos, and she completes a doctoral dissertation using Max’s letters as a major source. She even gets a book deal and proudly sends her first copy to Max.
Max, however, is far from thrilled. He considers this a betrayal and cuts off all correspondence with Mary, simply sending her the ‘M’ key from his typewriter as an indicator of his intended silence.
Naturally, this unexpected reaction (though perhaps it shouldn’t have been) sends Mary into a tailspin. She pulps the entire run of her book and retreats into depression. Her relationship with Damien deteriorates to the point that he leaves her and her many entreaties to Max go unanswered. Finally, despite being pregnant with Damien’s child she decides on suicide, and is only saved by a well-timed change of heart by Max, who sends her his entire collection of Noblets figurines as a peace offering.
Mary decides that it is finally time for her to meet Max, and after the birth of her child she travels to New York to meet the now-elderly man, only to find when she reaches his apartment that he has passed away peacefully before her arrival, having been staring at the ceiling when he died.
Mary looks up to the ceiling where she finds the many letters she has written him, collected and laminated and preserved, posted there as Max’s greatest treasure. The end.
Mary and Max presents itself as being based on a true story, but according to an interview with Elliot, “inspired” is a better word:
Well, my pen friend I have been writing to for over 20 years lives in New York. Like Max he is an atheist, he is Jewish and he has Asperger’s. There are a lot similarities but the film is not based on his life. I say it’s inspired by him. I never let the truth get in the way of a good story and there are plenty of embellishments. Mary of course is far more fictitious but I suppose I am Mary, because I was brought up in Mount Waverley and we created her world very like where I was brought up.
Which makes some sense. There’s perhaps just a little bit too much “emotional hook” in the film – to the point that it either has to be either A) An incredibly remarkable and entirely true story, or B) An emotionally-charged fictional story. Option C) A quite-less-remarkable true story dressed up with false emotion – well, that would be a very disappointing outcome. Happily, the truth is option B, and yes, maybe Elliot tugs a bit at the heart strings, but it’s just a story. He can do that. Isn’t that, in the end, what we ask for from our art?