Wednesday, January 20, 2010

NYJFF ’10: Mary and Max

Pre-Giuliani New York was a tough place to make friends, particularly for a middle-aged science fiction fan with Asperger’s Syndrome. Growing up in the Australian suburbs is not that easy either for an overweight young girl with a tragically conspicuous birth mark. While it might sound like a hackneyed cliché, the two sensitive oddball characters really do learn the value of friendship through their decades long correspondence in Adam Elliot’s bittersweet “clayography” (essentially his non-trademarked term for Claymation) feature film, Mary and Max (trailer here), the opening night film at last year’s Sundance, which now screens as a part of the 2010 New York Jewish Film Festival.

There are several reasons why young Mary Daisy Dinkle is so painfully shy at school. She is a bit on the chubby side, with “eyes the color of muddy puddles and a birthmark the color of poo.” She also has a mother more interested in the sherry bottle than providing a nurturing environment. To find out where babies come from, the confused girl sends a letter to a name randomly selected from the New York City phonebook: Max Jerry Horowitz.

When Horowitz receives her first letter, he has the first of many nervous breakdowns to come. Indeed, he has the distinction of being even more socially awkward than Dinkle. In addition to his Asperger’s, he is also a card-carrying member of the New York Science Fiction Club and a not-so former Communist, neither of which are really conducive to healthy social interaction. However, thanks to their mutual interests in chocolate and the Smurf-like Noblit cartoon characters, Horowitz is able to forge his first genuinely meaningful friendship.

Using the Penguin Café Orchestra’s “Perpetuum Mobile” as an effective recurring musical motif, Elliot brilliantly sets the stage, introducing viewers to Dinkle’s home town and her idiosyncratic family history. Eventually, the scene changes to Horowitz’s grungy 1970’s New York, quite evocatively captured in Elliot’s clay. As they exchange letters over the course of years, Dinkle becomes more self-assertive and Horowitz becomes more self-aware. However, Horowitz’s Asperger’s diagnosis threatens to rupture their friendship. Dinkle, now a confident psychologist in training, wants to cure his condition, whereas Horowitz embraces his identity as an “aspy.”

There is plenty of humor in M&M, both of the blackly comic and broadly slapstick varieties, but it is quite a serious, heartfelt film. Elliot’s figures are remarkably expressive and the voice talent of Toni Collette and Phillip Seymour Hoffman convincingly express their very human emotions. Australian actor Barry Humphries also provides warmly authoritative narration that holds the film together nicely.

M&M is the second clay-animated full length feature to come out of Australia, following Tatia Rosenberg’s memorably wistful $9.99. Arguably, M&M is even better realized as a screen drama in its own right. While it might sound like an oft-told tale, Elliot bestows fresh eccentricities and a genuinely sweet spirit on this ode to friendship. One of twenty qualifying films still officially eligible for the Best Animated Feature Film Award at this year’s Oscars, it ranks with A Town Called Panic as one of the best animated films of the year. It screens during this year’s NYJFF on Saturday (1/23) and Sunday (1/24) at the Walter Reade Theater and is also the opening night selection of the upcoming Reelabilities Film Festival at the JCC in Manhattan.