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(Update: Blogger hasn't fixed its problem with the "adult warning". Will go back to posting at my WordPress blog)

Friday, June 12, 2009

Mary and Max

Yesterday my lady and I went to see Mary and Max, an Ozzie claymation film by Adam Elliott and his team. He was the guy who did Harvey Krumpet, which won the best animated short film academy award in 2003.

Mary is a fat, plain little girl, with a birthmark in the middle of her forehead, growing up in a Melbourne suburb in 1976. He mother drinks too much tea and cheap cooking sherry and shoplifts all the time, her father works in a teabag factory, her granda tells her that babies come from the bottom of a beer mug, and (of course) she gets bullied at school. One day she goes to the post office and intrigued by the picture of the lady with the fire coming out of her hand, opens the New York telephone directory at random and copies down an address: Max Horowitz.

She writes to him, enclosing a cherry ripe as a gift, and her own small portrait of herself.

Max is unemployed, dysfunctional, enormously fat and has Asperger's. He calls himself an aspie. After the shock and terror of receiving something new and unknown, which he takes a few days to get over, he writes back, using his Underwood typewriter, pages filled with details of his life -- his therapist, his overeaters anonymous group, his fish, his parrot, his passion for chocolate hotdogs.

So begins a friendship which lasts 20 years.

Mary has no friends, and nor does Max. Every one of Mary's letters frightens Max, and it takes him a few days each time to get over each new one. But their correspondence flourishes. And the gifts flow backwards and forwards. They write to each other that they are best friends. And they are. Max has no friends because Asperger's makes it hard to relate to other ppl. But somehow, on paper, he can communicate his thoughts, his love and affection for Mary, and because he doesn't see himself as an adult, he doesn't treat her like a child. She doesn't know you are not supposed to make friends with fat old retarded men. She treats him exactly as she would any friend her age.

Of course, there are quarrels and misunderstandings. But the friendship becomes the most important relationship on their lives. And they never meet.

It's an extraordinary film. The local crits gave it 5 stars, and when I left the cinema I was wiping my eyes. Over some Plasticine figures! But oh! Oh! How it resonates! Friendship between misfits; comfort arriving in the letter box; a relationship that helps both survive their lives. It's not a Hollywood film. There are no cliched moments or contrived endings. There's a gay character, and a man who lost his legs in WWI and desperately funny and sad portraits of the ppl in both their lives.

It made me think (which all art should). You know how ppl say, this is my life partner, or this is my best friend -- how lucky I was to find him/her? But why should someone from your school, or a bloke you met at work, be your best friend/lover/husband? It's because you connect. That's the key. And it doesn't matter that one of you is an 8-year old girl in Melbourne and the other a 44 year-old aspie in New York. Or whether you are both in the same school and you fall in love. It's the connection that matters. Of course, it's easier in school or the workplace to connect -- unless you have Asperger's or are a fat ugly child with batty parents. Then the magic of letters or e-mail takes over.

There are many who pooh-pooh e-friendships, because they aren't "real". But the essence of a "real" friendship is love and affection and fondness and caring. When Max writes Mary that he can't cry (after yet another of his goldfish dies) she thinks of something sad (her cat being run over by a lawnmower) and collects the tears and send them to him so he can uses them when he feels sad. When she writes to him that the boys at school mock her because of her birthmark, he writes back and says that she should tell them that it's a sign from God that when she goes to heaven she'll be in charge of all the chocolate, and then adds (because he has Asperger's and is therefore intensely literal) that that is a lie because there is no Heaven and no God, but to do it anyway. Neither of them think this is peculiar. Their friend needs something, so they send it. Unconstrained by conventions, they are exactly what the other needs.

Like all the very greatest stories, it's about love and sorrow, about hope and despair, about our feelings for each other. It is a triumphant declaration of the power of love and affection, of the innate need and capacity for love in humans, whoever and wherever they are.

Go and see it. Don't take your children. It's a story for grown ups. Especially if you have loved, and lost; if you are lonely and an outsider; if you believe in hope but suspect in your heart that your hope in hope is hopeless. There are so many deplorably rubbishy films made, filled with tired old recycled piffle, made with all eyes on box office success and none on the the worth of what they're creating. This film is a gem. And if you don't laugh on the way through, and hold your breath with tension when it looks as if it won't work out, and cry at the end -- you're dead, and no one told you. It manages to be sad as well as uplifting, to be engrossing and exciting, funny and moving and clever. Somehow, despite the gentle fun poked at Ozzie suburbia and Mary's weird little family, at Max and his acquaintances, it never preaches or talks down to you, yet all the same still makes its message crystal clear: only connect.

You can read The Age's film critic's take on it here.

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