The Broken Stranger

A Review of Mary and Max

Sometimes strangers make the best friends. So reads the tagline for Adam Elliot's 2009 animated film, Mary and Max. And it certainly is an unlikely friendship that grows between an 8-year-old chubby Australian girl and a 44-year-old Jewish American man who has Asperger's syndrome. As unlikely as picking a name out of a phone book, which is how Mary first came to write Max.

But it seems strangeness is exactly what Eliot is trying to convey. The medium of claymation beguiles us to expect entertainment; what we get is a tapestry of tragic and comic snapshots from the lives of two lonely people. Identity, loneliness, family dysfunction, obesity, sexual curiosity, mental illness, bigotry and cruelty are just some of the threads that Elliot weaves. Based on his own experience of a decades-long pen pal relationship with an "Aspie", Adam Elliot could have written this screenplay as live-action. But claymation gives the filmmaker a unique language that reveals the essence of people and situations. It frees up dialogue ("You are my best friend, you are my only friend"), and allows just the right balance of whimsy and pathos to open our hearts, but not get maudlin. And so Elliot gets past our defenses and tells us the story of how this unlikely friendship started, was tested, and ultimately flowered. This strangely artful film is a paean in honour of friendship.

Mary Dinkle is a lonely 8-year-old girl living in Australia. Neglected by an absent father and alcoholic mother, Mary decides to write to a person picked at random from one of the post office phone books. Stringing together the beads of her uneventful life, she includes in her letter a chocolate Cherry Ripe. Across the ocean Max Horowitz receives this strange package and reads it four times before knowing how to respond. In a similar episodic style, talking about his favorite words and foods, Max introduces himself to her. Six weeks later, in spite of an interfering mother, Mary receives her own package. And so it begins.They quickly move from introduction to sharing advice, as Mary asks for help from school yard bullies and Max shares his struggles with Overeaters Anonymous.

While we are not all overweight lonely children or Aspies, we all know that loneliness of wanting someone to understand and accept us. We all know the isolation, sometimes actual but often self-imposed, that life brings us. So in a sense we are all broken or incomplete until we find a way to share our world with another. We find the courage to share our neediness, and are met with the joy of knowing there is an Other. This joy often gets expressed in helping, listening, and sharing stories. What a gift to not be alone.

But friendship can turn your world upside down, revealing things about ourselves we'd rather not see or remember. Mary's curious questions are increasingly disturbing to Max, who is forced to remember some scenes from his childhood he'd rather forget.The gaps in his responses, as he tries to regain equilibrium, cause anxiety for Mary. And then adolescence hits her with its hormonal vengeance. Mary falls in love and a new cycle of disturbing questions throw off Max's precarious emotional balance again. As Mary grows up and learns more about Max's condition, she is drawn to study psychology in college. Thinking she will help her friend, she writes her thesis and then a critically acclaimed book on their friendship. But Mary fails to recognize Max's critique of labels, of being identified with syndromes instead of just accepting who you are ("I like being an Aspie"). When she blithely sends him an advance copy of her book, promising the proceeds to Aspie research, she unwittingly betrays him in the deepest sense. In response, instead of a letter, Mary receives the most potent rebuke; the key for the letter "M" torn from Max's typewriter.

We are a mixed bag, the coins of good intentions rattling right alongside envy and selfishness. And often it is only through friendship that we see our darker shades. Mary becomes aware of how she used Max to bolster her insecure ego, under the guise of helping him. And Max encounters his hardness of heart as his rage boils up whenever he see's Mary's plaintive apology written on the side of a can of sweetened condensed milk she sent as an olive branch. He cannot write back.

Elliot has taken us to this point with his deft narrative brush, breaking up the sadder scenes with comic elements of Mary's neighbor Len trying to overcome agoraphobia or Max's near-blind neighbour Ivy dropping her dentures in his soup. He has also undermined our prejudices in how we give mentally ill people special status. Max, like Mary, is fully human, both kind and selfish, compassionate and cruel. Max is like us. Our fears of mental illness are in some ways our defense against a seemingly meaningless or capricious world. How is it fair that one person is "normal" and another "labelled"? Again, the story of friendship, and friendship with the stranger, takes us deeper into what it means to be human, beyond these dichotomies.

Max cannot let go of his rage at Mary for using him, for seeing him as a label. He doesn't see the contradiction in how he too labels people, especially those who litter. But then in a perfect moment of comedy (seen through the darkness to the light), as Max is strangling a local homeless man for littering, and the man gasps "I'm sorry", Max connects the dots. Words from his psychiatrist, words from Mary's apology can, his own angry hands doing harm to another, all conspire to transform. He finds a way, within his preferred, articulated, delineated world, to allow for imbalance and imperfection. He sees himself in her; they are the same, therefore both to be cherished. His letter of forgiveness is almost gospel: "you are my best friend, you are my only friend." Friendship is an incarnation, something inner made real through sharing and confrontation. Friendship is the clay through which we see what it might mean to be human. Ultimately, friendship shows us what it means to forgive.

In this way the unlikely friendship between Mary and Max makes me think of how God befriends us, as Kenneth Leech spoke of in his book Soul Friend. We are all invited to be receptive to this friendship, to let our defenses down. There is something in how Max forgives Mary that strikes me. It took some time. The "I'm sorry" sat on his shelf, making him angry whenever he looked at it. The letter "M" was permanently missing, an oblique reference to the Jewish ritual of tearing your garment. But when Max sees a human face mouth the words "I'm sorry", the litterer in the hands of an angry Aspie is forgiven. Max changes. He gives away one of his life goals, one of the most cherished things, his collection of Noblets. There is something so deliberate in him packing up all his favourite figurines in a big box. A manifest symbol of his full forgiveness. It is a physical thing for him to give this as a token. Forgiveness is real. He makes himself smile, turns his face back to Mary, to humanity. At first his smile looks like a grimace. But that night, as he's looking up at the stars, his smile has becomes real (Velveteen rabbit anyone?). "His world was complete, life was a balance once again." Things have been "set to rights" as N.T. Wright would say.

In just such a way God forgives us. He doesn't hold against us our tendency to self-interest and manipulation. He gave up the most precious thing, his "Godness" in order to enter human existence. And in doing so, he walks alongside us in friendship, in invitation. Because of this, we can begin again, learn to really smile, to live with a new heart. Learn to befriend others, the Other, the Stranger who walks with us.

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