Last Friday, Oct. 7, a film screening of “Mary and Max,” a stop-motion animated comedy-drama that addresses topics of disability, mental illness, loneliness and childhood neglect, took place in Rocky 300 at 8 p.m. Some specific issues that the movie deals with include autism (Asperger’s syndrome in particular), anxiety, obesity, depression and suicide. The screening was followed by a discussion on how the film represents disability and communicates the experience of it to its viewers.
“Mary and Max” is an eccentric and gut-wrenching film by Adam Elliot that delineates the blooming of an unconventional friendship between the two titular characters. Mary is an eight-year-old Australian girl with no friends and an alcoholic mother who regularly steals. Max is a lonely 44-year-old obese Jewish man with Asperger’s syndrome who lives in New York City. One day, without really knowing what she was doing, Mary finds a stranger named Max Horowitz in the directory and decides to send him a letter with little tidbits of information about her life. When Max receives her letter, he undergoes an intense anxiety attack, but eventually writes back to her. From then on, Mary and Max become unlikely pen pals, bonding over their mutual need for a friend.
As the plot unravels, it becomes clear how each and every character has to deal with their own demons, highlighting what an imperfect and dissatisfying world it really is. Although traditionally deemed to be a pretext for children’s movies, the film uses animation as a medium to tell its story. Yet this film breaks barriers of convention, as it’s dark and emotionally exhausting themes are far from kid-friendly. Alongside its complex modes of storytelling, the film is interspersed with comic relief throughout, be it in the form of witty, ironic lines, ridiculous visuals or societal mockery. Apart from that, the film is well-produced, using sound effects to both dramatize comedic moments and heighten the emotional experience of tragic ones. Furthermore, the form of animation used, claymation, incorporates “deformable” or “clay-like” images, and fits well with the theme, accentuating both the grotesque and the comical in the film.
Jesse Horowitz ’19, the member of ACCESS who selected “Mary and Max” for the screening, discussed how he personally related to Max’s experience as a character, and how important he felt it was for others to gain the visceral understanding of mental illness that this film provides. “The movie is a journey about making peace with oneself. It’s about realizing that people with disabilities do not always want to be cured. We like ourselves, flaws and all. Acceptance of oneself is really important,” implored Horowitz.
He continued, “This screening is really a way for us to educate people about experience of autism and Asperger’s syndrome, and often the feelings of self-hatred and isolation that result from them, and other mental disabilities. It’s to teach us to love ourselves despite all the negativity.”
Likewise, ACCESS member Charles Callejo ’17 also remarked, “It’s one of the best animated films I’ve ever seen. I have a lot of movie experience and I can tell you that this is by far one of the most interesting cinematic experiences I’ve had, at least with animation. I especially enjoyed the very selective use of color–the film incorporates imperfection into the aesthetic. Style and substance really work together.”
During the post-screening discussion about the film, Michael Callejo, a visitor who studies at Bard College, shared his thoughts: “Animation is stereotyped as either a kid’s thing or raunchy comedy. It’s so rare and refreshing to see an animation movie dealing with some really difficult subject matter. It makes one question, is disability actually a bad thing or is it just part of what makes us human?”
In response, Dylan Horowitz ’19, who attended the screening, observed, “I think what’s really important to take away is that each character has personal issues to deal with and that’s okay. Mary and Max are not the only oddballs; we have the neighbor who’s battling agoraphobia, Mary’s mother who is spiraling deeper and deeper into alcoholism, Mary’s husband who has a stutter, and even the woman in Max’s Overeaters Anonymous group who doesn’t know how to give people personal space. It’s not a perfect world, and everyone is coping, and that’s okay.”
The discussion closed with a comment from Secretary of ACCESS Anne Goss ’20: “What we must realize is that they’re differently abled, not disabled. Because whatever imperfections they may have, it doesn’t make them any less human.”
The film’s ironic sadness, tinged with poignant hope and helplessness, was infused in every frame and deeply moving. It’s the kind of movie that makes you laugh through your tears and its lessons of acceptance are worth exploring for audience members of all ages.