Friday, January 16, 2009

Sundance 2009: Mary & Max

[Film Fest] It didn't use to be like this. The Sundance Film Festival opening night selection used to reliably range from forgettable to bad (with a few outliers, of course). But times change. A year after In Bruges opened the festival, Sundance premiered another gem in Mary & Max.

The film marks the feature debut of stop-motion animation director Adam Elliot, who made the 2003 Oscar-winning short Harvie Krumpet. Mary & Max studies an unlikely friendship between two people who have never met. Mary, a lonely school girl in the suburbs of Melbourne, Australia, randomly picks a name out of a U.S. phone book, and starts a correspondence with an anxious 44-year-old man from New York City. Max isn't skilled socially, and certainly isn't an expert on talking to kids. Discussing his past jobs, he mentions that he used to work at a condom factory, then throws in the fact that he has never used a condom. Meanwhile, Mary innocently brings up topics that challenge her beleaguered pen pal's mental stability. And yet the two have an unmistakable bond.

The characters emerge from the excellent voice acting by Toni Collette and Bethany Whitmore as Mary (as an adult and child, respectively) and Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose voice is unrecognizable as Max. While computer animation has brought us many great films and wondrous visuals, there is still something to be said for the hands-on charm of stop-motion. The tangible sets, the fingerprints, the creative portrayal of non-solids like water, bubbles and fire—they all contribute to the film's whimsical magic. Elliot proves himself a virtuoso in artful shots and expressive character animation, and brings to life the dry, morbid wit of his screenplay with the prowess of a seasoned filmmaker. (Jeremy Mathews)

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