A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that this stop-action animated drama is not for young children. Although the style of animation is popular in movies like Fanastic Mr. Fox and Coraline, this film-festival-hit indie isn't appropriate for single-digit-aged kiddos. There are the far too many grown-up themes, including sexuality, substance abuse, body image problems, severe depression, Asperger's diagnosis, and suicide. Many of the characters drink and smoke all the time, and the protagonist pen pals (who are eight and 44 when the movie begins) discuss everything from how babies are conceived to bullying to loneliness to atheism. Ultimately, this is a completely unsentimental but beautiful look at a highly unusual, inter-generational, long-distance friendship, but it's best for mature teens and parents who know that sometimes the unlikeliest people can become your best friends.
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What's the story?
Mary Daisy Dinkle (voiced first by young Bethany Whitmore and later by Toni Collette) is a chubby, friendless eight-year-old girl in Melbourne, Australia. She has eyes like muddy pellets and a scar on her forehead that, unlike Harry Potter's cool lightning bolt, looks like a splatter of poo. One day she looks up the New York White Pages in a library and decides to write a letter to a real American to ask him how babies are made. The recipient is Max Jerry Horoviitz (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a socially awkward, obese, 44-year-old Jewish man living in Manhattan. They begin a 20-year pen friendship during which they exchange a series of frank questions and revelations about everything from Max's atheism to Mary's feelings for her Greek neighbor Damien (Eric Bana). Although they never have a chance to meet in person, their letters form the basis of one of the truest friendships ever portrayed on screen.
Is it any good?
This movie is at times funny and at times heartbreaking and real. Director Adam Elliot won an Academy Award for his animated short Harvey Krumpet, about a man dealing with Tourette's Syndrome, so it's no surprise that MARY AND MAX are two lonely misfits yearning for friendship. They are not always likable, and they're definitely not always relatable (few people are as relentlessly teased throughout childhood or socially awkward as adults as these two), but audiences will grow to love them warts, scars, and all. It's their flaws and foibles (Mary flirts with her neighbor only to be told she has poop on her shoe; Max exercises self-loathing by stuffing himself with chocolate before heading to overeating anonymous group) that endear them to the viewer.
The letters sent back and forth are so beautifully simple and honest that it's no wonder why Max feels compelled to lovingly iron, laminate, and save each one. They ask each other anything and everything -- from the very first query about where children come from (she thinks it's from the bottom of a cola can or beer bottle, as her grandfather informed her; he was told rabbis, nuns, or "dirty prostitutes" laid eggs that hatched into babies) to whether he's ever been bullied or she has a pet kangaroo (yes and no). Collette and Hoffman are so evocative with their voices (he especially, with his Yiddish-spiked New York accent). As they narrate their long rambling letters to each other, we see their flashbacks and thoughts come to life. We should all be so lucky to have even one friendship as true as Mary and Max's.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about Mary and Max's long-distance friendship. In the movie, they are the other's best friend and influence the other profoundly, but how would such a relationship be considered in real life? Did Mary's mother have a compelling reason not to want her to correspond with Max?
How are the issues of substance abuse, depression, suicide, and Max's Asperger's diagnosis handled? Was it odd to see such a candid approach to such heavy themes in an animated movie?
Body image is a consistent issue in the movie. How do Mary and Max each come to terms with their bodies? How does plastic surgery "change" Mary? What about group therapy for Max's overeating?
Parents, this is a perfect opportunity to discuss friends you rarely see but who've made a big difference in your life. Also make sure your kids know that they can come to YOU with all the issues Mary struggled with first.