Love Yourself First: Mental Illness In MARY AND MAX

The most bittersweet claymation film ever made.

Adam Elliot won an Academy Award in 2004 for his delightful and weird claymation short Harvie Krumpet. Post-Oscar, expectations for the Australian animator’s debut feature were sky-high, but by God, he delivered. Mary and Max is not just an astonishing debut; it’s a bittersweet film about loneliness, mental illness, and friendship by any measure. It’s also a dear favourite of mine.

Mary and Max centres on an unlikely friendship between two people of varying degrees of instability. Mary Daisy Dinkle (Bethany Whitmore and Toni Collette) is an eight-year-old Melbourne girl with a rooster named Ethel, a taste for sweetened condensed milk, and powerful doses of social anxiety and low self-esteem. Max Horowitz (a terrific and unusual performance from Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a 44-year-old, 352-pound New York man with Asperger’s, a lapsed Jewish faith, and an imaginary friend named Mr Ravioli. When Mary picks Max’s name out of a phone book to ask him where babies come from, the pair form a pen-pal relationship that lasts decades.

Miraculously, this relationship between a 44-year-old man and an 8-year-old girl never once feels skeevy or inappropriate. Because they’re both so lonely and unprepared for social interaction, it feels like a genuine connection between two rather incomplete souls. There’s a sweet innocence to the purity of the emotions involved. At one point, Mary bottles her tears to send to Max, because his condition renders him “unable to cry properly”. It’s a moment that in a live-action film would feel creepy, but here feels like the sweetest thing in the world.

A defining characteristic of Elliot’s work - and of Mary and Max - is the degree of odd detail given to his characters. Although the overarching story is sad in and of itself, it’s the details that really get to you. Though there’s very little onscreen dialogue (it’s about characters who spend their lives alone), Barry Humphries’ voiceover narration complements the outwardly cute, charming animation style, uncovering the deep emotion and poignant insights within. Both the lead characters are very sad people who derive what pleasure they get from tiny things - chocolate, hiding, order. I’d list my favourite moments, but I don’t want to spoil the movie. Part of the joy of watching it comes from the delightful surprises hidden away in little asides or corners of the frame.

“I do not feel disabled, defective, or in need of a cure. I like being an "aspie"! It would be like changing the colour of my eyes.”

The most unexpected and powerful element of Mary and Max is the utter frankness with which it discusses mental illness. Max’s Asperger’s is referred to as a disability, but the film never judges him for it. We see it - and Max’s whole world - through his eyes, just as we see Mary’s through hers. When Max has a panic attack, we understand. When Mary cries so hard her tears start “smudgling” her handwriting, we downright melt. It’s almost impossible not to identify with these characters in some respect. Dealing with complex issues in a heartfelt, honest, and empathetic way, Mary and Max is a must-see to understand how mental illness can colour, but not define someone’s personality.

In the film’s third act, a grown-up Mary goes to university to learn about “disorders of the mind,” using Max as her thesis’ case study. It’s at this point, when she starts treating Max as a subject rather than a friend, that the friendship falls apart. Though her studies certainly help her to understand Max’s mind a bit more, it takes her focus away from the soul she befriended as a child - which isn’t lost on the increasingly hurt and confused Max. People aren’t defined by their mental illnesses. If we don’t treat people as people, we’re part of the problem.

Needless to say, this is a profoundly sad film. Nearly completely drained of colour, it starts off sad, gets sadder as it goes on, and escalates towards an almost unbearably bittersweet ending. It’s also a film that addresses completely frankly issues like alcoholism, parental neglect, and suicide. Mary’s mother is an alcoholic and borderline kleptomaniac; her father a broken-down factory worker and amateur taxidermist, and likely also an alcoholic. Their neglect of Mary isn’t just a powerful influence on her childhood; it also impacts how she grows up. When adult Mary reaches her third-act low point, she turns to drinking, her reflection becoming that of her late alcoholic mother. There’s an unbelievably bleak beat towards the end that had me mouthing “oh my God” in the theatre, and though the film lifts from that point, it keeps on riding that tsunami of tears right into the end credits.

“Mary fell into a puddle of depression, self-loathing, and cooking sherry. She lost interest in the world, and it lost interest in her.”

At first glance, Mary and Max might seem contradictory. It’s a film that both believes in the power of human connection and friendship, and takes a cynical view of people’s often-selfish attitudes towards others. But ultimately, that’s part of the point. A crucial revelation in the film is the simple realisation that nobody’s perfect, and that we must love ourselves first, warts and all. As Max puts it, “you can’t choose your warts, but you can choose your friends”. I first saw Mary and Max at the New Zealand Film Festival in July 2009. I left the theatre sobbing, and with a huge smile on my face. I instantly knew it was my favourite film of the year. Come December, my opinion was unchanged. Though it never received distribution in the United States, Mary and Max is a classic of animated cinema, effortlessly eliciting the holy grail of audience reactions: laughter through tears.