Mary and Max, the opening night film of the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, traces the 20 year friendship of two eccentric ugly ducklings who accidentally find each other through the mail and subsequently learn to love, feel, want, hurt, dream and accomplish through their letters. Although a tad sappy and heavy-handed at times, Mary and Max fidgets and wiggles its way into our good spirits by the time it reaches its endearing conclusion, as we're left to examine not just the relationships we have in our lives, but the ones we have with ourselves, too.
When we first meet Mary (voiced by Toni Collette) it's 1976 in the suburbs of Melbourne, Australia, and she's a slightly overweight dweeb-ish 8-year-old with a birthmark the color poo and a lonely life devoid of friends, but full of teasing from the bully at school, abandonment from her alcoholic mother and hobby-obsessed father, and complete isolation from the rest of the world. Mary spends her days eating chocolate and drinking sweet condensed milk, while watching her favorite cartoon show The Noblits -- for which she's created homemade dolls out of each Noblit character because her parents would never buy her such a thing. When she stumbles across a phone book for New York in the library, Mary decides to choose one random name and write this person a letter -- to find out, of course, whether babies, in America -- like in Australia -- are born on the bottom of beer mugs (a fact spoken to her by her mother while boozed up on the cooking Sherry).
The person whose name she picks out of the phone book is 40-year old Max (voiced by Philip Seymour Hoffman doing his best middle-aged New York Jew); an obese, neurotic Jewish man who lives by himself in a dingy apartment watching The Noblits while obsessing over his three life goals: 1. Owning the entire toy collection of The Noblits. 2. Owning a lifetime supply of chocolate (so he can make his chocolate hot dogs from a recipe he created), and 3. Finding one friend. That friend eventually comes in the form of a nosy 8-year-old who, it turns out, is just like him ... only younger, thinner, a female and living on the other side of the world.
Their pen pal relationship continues through the years, and we learn more about their lives -- in tiny, bite-sized details -- as Max is diagnosed with asperger's syndrome (a neurological condition that causes one extreme social awkwardness), and Mary grows into the kind of woman who wants to solve all of Max's problems without learning how to solve her own first. Here, writer and director Adam Eliott crafts yet another piece of inspired claymation -- with unbelievably beautiful set design, all hand-sculpted, transformed into either a comfortable, quiet and colorful neighborhood in Melbourne, Australia, or the cold, stark, black-and-white streets of a struggling New York City (where homeless men offer hugs for 50 cents).
And if the film struggles, it does so in length -- but never seems to lose direction or focus; we're with both Mary and Max through thick and thin until the end. Even the film's most over-the-top moments -- like, for example, a critical scene toward the end set to the tune Que Sera Sera -- look so gorgeous on camera that it's almost hard to criticize the aww, shucks-nish of it all. Sure, you want to laugh when Mary fills up a jar of her tears and sends it to Max as a gift, but it should be enjoyed as a beautiful moment of connection -- of two people, old and young, trying to feel their way toward some sort of normalcy.
Mary and Max was a good choice to open this year's festival; it was definitely more feel-good than both In Bruges (2008 opener) and Chicago 10 (2007 opener), and during a time of extreme economic hardships, it was the perfect reminder to reconnect with ourselves and appreciate the friendships that float in and out of our lives like letters through the mail.