Discovering a new filmmaker is a joyful experience. A fresh voice emerging on to the cinematic scene has the potential to invigorate and inspire in a way that seasoned directors sometimes cannot, weighed down by genres they have already established and mastered. Australia’s Adam Elliot is very much one of these new and visionary talents, with his first feature-length film, the claymation Mary and Max, standing as testimony to his skill at this year’s FNC.
Mary Daisy Dinkle (voiced by Toni Collette) is an 8-year-old girl living in Melbourne. Her parents are largely absent; her father works long hours at a tea bag factory, and is absorbed with his taxidermy, while her mother spends much of her time “testing” gin. Mary is made fun of at school, and is the happiest when watching her favorite television show, The Noblets. She wishes she could collect Noblet figurines, but doesn’t have enough money, so she makes her own out of string, glue, and other little things she finds around the house.
But Mary’s life changes when she picks a name at random out of a book of New York names and addresses at the post office, and subsequently becomes pen pals with Max Jerry Horowitz (voiced by Philip Seymour Hoffman). A 44-year-old Jewish, atheistic, severely obese man with Asperger’s syndrome, Max is at first terribly apprehensive about this friendship. Yet he soon warms up to Mary, and the two form a lasting bond. The film follows their relationship as it moves forward, through Max’s struggles with his disorder, Mary’s romance with the boy across the street, Nick Popodopoulos (voiced by Eric Bana), and all the other ups and downs of life.
What makes this movie so wonderful is its light-hearted attitude and artfully heartwarming animation. Elliot’s sense of humour is present even in the unhappiest of circumstances, using cleverly placed jokes and amusing absurdities to balance the sadness of the death of a parent or the fear of a confrontation with the overwhelming urban form of New York City. As the years fly by, and life certainly does not work out as planned for either of the characters, there is never a sense of loss or despair, but rather a constant joy. Life can be sad, but it can also always be funny and warm if you look at it from the right angle, which is exactly what Mary and Max ask us to do.
Of course, you don’t have to take my word for it. Elliot’s previous work, the short film Harvey Krumpet, which depicts a Polish emigrant to Australia with chronic bad luck, a penchant for nudism and Tourette’s Syndrome, won the Oscar for Best Animated Short in 2004, and is available on YouTube. Narrated by Geoffrey Rush, this short film is a great distillation of Elliot’s distinct and wonderful perspective as a filmmaker, and shouldn’t be missed.
Mary and Max is screening at Cinéma du Parc (3575 Parc) at 7 p.m. on October 10 and 5 p.m. on October 14.