Sundance 2009: “Mary And Max”

01.15.09 9 years ago

Sundance Institute

Thank god that one hour of down time was enough to get me through the second half of today, as I attended the press screening of the opening night film.  Set to start at 6:30, I figured I could walk to the Yarrow from my condo in enough time to be in line by 6:00.  That would have worked better if the guy at the front desk could give me directions that didn’t make him sound like Matt Lucas playing chav girl Vicki Pollard in “Little Britain.”  He confused me so profoundly that I spent 15 minutes walking in the wrong direction.  If it wasn’t so cold out, I wouldn’t have minded, but by the time you factor in the slippery iced-over sidewalks and the unappreciated detour and the fact that I’m a fat nearly 40 year old guy who’s not used to mountain air, my jaunty little stroll to the Yarrow got me to the screening late, and for a moment, I thought I was going to be out of luck regarding seating.  I saw a lot of familiar faces in line, like Devin from CHUD and Frosty from Collider and the original Thompson Twins, Jeff Wells and David Poland.  Still, I’ve told myself not to get stressed out about things at the fest this year because that tends to snowball, and I just settled into the back of the line and waited to see what would happen.

Sure enough… no worries required.  I got the exact seat I wanted, right next to some friends, and by the time the lights went down and the Sundance promo began, I was comfortably settled for the beginning of a festival.

I think it’s hard to be the opening night movie of any fest, because you’re expected to set a tone or make a statement or cause a ruckus… the pressure is on in a way that really doesn’t apply to anything else in the fest.

Luckily, Adam Elliot seems up to the task.  Elliot is an Academy Award winning filmmaker whose short film “Harvie Krumpet” was released in 2003.  That was a 23 minute character piece about a damaged little guy with Tourette’s Syndrome, and there was a strange mix of whimsy and ugly at work in the film that turned some viewers off.  I liked “Krumpet,” but didn’t love it, and as soon as “Mary and Max” began, I realized Elliot was going to be covering some familiar ground in this, his feature-length debut.

And, sure enough, I’ve already heard from several people who didn’t just dislike the film, but who outright loathed it.  I expect it will provoke strong reactions from many, but I found myself gradually won over by both the uncompromised tone of the film and the way it managed to address the very real issue of living with Asperger’s Syndrome without being a film “about” the issue.  I wouldn’t say this is a film everyone should run out and see immediately.  It’s grim and depressing and every time you think Elliot is going to let you bask in a little sunshine, he rolls in another dark cloud to rain on the audience without mercy.  But it’s based on a true story, and I think there is some real value in not only what it has to say, but how it says it.

We meet Mary Dinkle (Toni Collette) first, an eight-year-old Australian girl in the ’70s who lives with her emotionally distant father who loves taxidermy and his privacy and her perpetually wobbly mom who loves cooking sherry and shoplifting.  Mary’s a sad little thing from the moment we meet her, with a poo-colored birthmark on her forehead and enough body issues to fuel the entire female cast of a CW teen drama.  Mary’s in the post office with her mother one day, looking at phone books from New York City, trying to imagine all the strange people living there, and she decides to randomly write to one of them to ask some questions, including, “Where do babies come from?”

She has no idea what she’s getting into, though, when she picks M. J. Horowitz as her new pen pal.  Max (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is decades older than her, just shy of 50, and he’s an obese austistic man, in the days when austism wasn’t diagnosed as such, barely able to cope with the daily details of his life.  Mary’s first letter is both a delight and an invasion, and Max’s struggles to deal with the wild emotions that Mary’s writing stirs in him makes up much of the drama on his end of this strange long-distance relationship that takes hold and develops over years and years.

The details of the worlds that Mary and Max inhabit are scuzzy, disturbing, profoundly unhappy.  Elliot seems uninterested in giving you the standard epiphanies found in these types of movies.  Mary makes a ton of mistakes in how she handles the hyper-delicate Max, and Max has no sense of the enormous power he has over Mary’s happiness as well.  The two of them hurt each other over and over without ever meeting, but they keep returning to this relationship because whatever hardships are part of it, they also recognize in one another some essential loneliness that makes them alike in a world where everyone else seems “normal.”

Over the last couple of years, I’ve had a lot of contact with various Asperger’s Syndrome patients, some in the Ain’t It Cool chat room, some in e-mail, and I’m always fascinated by how the remove of a text correspondence helps to balance out the things that make an austistic feel disconnected from the people they encounter face-to-face.  The potential for profound misunderstanding is still there, but they still have more time to try and formulate a reaction that is appropriate.  I can’t imagine a life like Max’s over the years he spends alone, but Elliot does a good job of making you feel the small tactile details of this strange and often miserable existence.  So good a job, in fact, that I can picture some people simply rejecting the film as an experience they are sorry they had.

I think the low-key narration by Barry Humphries and the small supporting turn by Eric Bana as a neighbor who Mary harbors a life-long crush on both enhance the film, and there’s no question that Elliot is a stylist with a distinct voice.  I just think “Mary and Max” is going to prove to be too difficult a journey for many viewers, even with the flourishes of dark dark gallows humor throughout.  And, yes, I’ll confess that the ending carried an unexpected emotional payoff for me, something I dreaded on a film this ugly.  Yet Elliot earns it, and if you are able to click into the style of this one, you may find it rewarding.  I doubt it’ll be one of the films I rave about at the end of the festival, but I think it more than did the job of kicking off this year’s Sundance with admirable grace.

I’ve got an early morning screening of “It Might Get Loud,” so I’m off to bed.  One day down, and I feel like I’m just starting to get comfortable.  Tomorrow’s going to be my first real test up here, and we’ll see how well I do with updating, watching, and writing for almost 18 straight hours.

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