Never Mind the Email

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January 13, 2010

Adam Elliot’s Mary and Max is yet another display of the expanding horizons of feature-length animation films. No longer content with children, fantasy buffs and soccer moms in search of light entertainment like Wallace & Gromit, animated features now probe the “mature themes” once considered the exclusive domain of “serious” adult dramas.

Elliot’s claymation tells the unlikely story of friendship between Mary Daisy Dinkle, an eight-year-old resident of suburban Melbourne, Australia and Max Jerry Horowitz, a forty-four year-old New York Jew. Overweight, with thick glasses and a birthmark on her forehead, Mary is a lonely child who struggles to make sense of the world around her and, in particular, of her relationship with her uncaring father and her alcoholic mother. On a visit to the post office, she is amused by the strange names she finds in an American phone book and decides to write to one of them. Mary randomly selects Max, who turns out to be an obese, atheist Manhattanite with Asperger’s syndrome. The letters Mary and Max exchange over the course of the following eighteen years reveal not only their mutual love of sweets—they exchange chocolate bars, cans of condensed milk and more—but also their shared sense of estrangement and alienation.

Mary and Max uses its protagonists to explore such themes as obesity, parental neglect, depression, sexuality, anxiety and trust. Unimpeded by the norms that govern ‘normal’ adult behavior, the unchecked language of Mary and Max’s correspondence allows the director to tackle these issues in a documentary-like manner. Indeed, the frankness of communication between an aging man and a young girl might have resulted in an uneasy, perhaps even troubling film. It is in this respect that the choice of medium shows its significance. Adam Elliot’s claymation plays on the tension between its verisimilitude and luck thereof, inasmuch as its characters are clearly made of clay, allowing them to maintain a clear distance from the reality that they point to. As with Waltz with Bashir—perhaps the most celebrated adult animation movie of the decade - animation is crucial to the director’s ability to tackle his film’s complex subject matter. It proves critical, in fact, to demonstrating the limits of “real” action films in terms of content, not to mention representation.

This is not to say that Mary and Max is a morbid film, forever destined to be enjoyed exclusively by typically niche indie audiences. There are a sufficient amount of quirky, humorous moments to guarantee that its difficult subject matter is palatable to more than just movie critics. In an age of paranoia over the specter of menacing adults who surf the web in search of unsuspecting children, Mary and Max is an unabashed paean (and a dirge) to the very real potential for non-exploitative relationships between children and adults, of the opposite sex, through letter writing. Perhaps the best way to understand this aspect of the film is to witness how it portrays the characters as they age, during the weeks, sometimes even months, in between their letters to one another.

In an era in which written communications circulate around the world in a matter of seconds, this attention to time is like a question, asking us whether the new forms of communication we have grown accustomed to, such as email and instant messaging, are as nurturing as that which once took place on paper. Based on what we learn of Mary and Max, who literally live for one another’s words, the answer is no. How would their lives have turned out if they did not have the time to carefully weigh what each other had to say?

Mary and Max will be shown on January 23rd and 24th at the New York Jewish Film Festival

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