…what consolation have we in this human society, so replete with mistaken notions and distressing anxieties, except the unfeigned faith and mutual affections of genuine, loyal friends? ~ St. Augustine, City of God, XIX.8
St. Augustine knew that friendship was a gift from God—that true joy in life was not to be found without friends and the gift of their love and company. In fact, for Augustine, God’s grace of salvation is not something that is had in isolation but only had in the chorus of friendship.
Adam Eliot, the Australian director behind the 2003 Oscar-winning animated short, Harvey Krumpet, has made his full-length debut with Mary & Max, a claymation tale about two archetypal ‘outsiders’ who strike up a rare and deep, although unlikely friendship.
Mary Daisy Dinkle (voiced by Toni Collette) is a lonely, friendless eight year old growing up in suburban Melbourne with an alcoholic mother and a taxidermy-obsessed and neglectful father in the late 1970’s who spends her days eating chocolate and drinking condensed milk. In her youthful curiosity, she finds a name and an address in a New York phone book. On the other end of that address we find Max Jerry Horowitz (voiced brilliantly by Philip Seymour Hoffman, doing his best New York Yiddish accent), an obese 44 year old Jewish man with undiagnosed Asperger’s whose only human contact is with his Overeater’s Anonymous group or his blind elderly Chinese neighbour.
Their improbable pen-pal friendship develops over a host of letters sent back and forth (letters which send Max into an anxiety attack each time he gets one). The story follows their friendship over two decades as it expands and contracts with the joys of life (love, dreams, accomplishments) and with its sometimes dark realities (anxiety, broken relationships, depression, suicide). As each of them try to struggle to feel their way to some sense of connection—to some sense of normalcy—their friendship grows and in fact, their salvation is found in their bond of mutual affection.
The film is a visual treat as it beautifully breathes and moves in hues of browns and greys. The handcrafted claymation, from the suburbs of Melbourne to the streets of New York, softens the depth to which this movie plunges the viewer (though animated, it is not for children). In any other medium, the film would have failed to hold the viewer. After watching the movie, if you’re like me, you’ll feel as if you’ve been given a gift, as if you’ve been allowed, for a few hours, to eavesdrop on the beauty of a friendship that knows not the boundaries of conventional relationships. This is a movie about friendship at its most raw—deep, dark, and dazzling at once and it sticks to your ribs long after it’s over.
After Mary has wronged Max, he recognizes that true friendship includes forgiveness, so he writes to her:
The hurt felt like when I accidentally stapled my lips together. The reason I forgive you is because you are not perfect. You are imperfect, and so am I. All humans are imperfect, even the man outside my apartment who litters. When I was young I wanted to be anybody but myself. Dr. Benard Hazelhof said if I was on a desert island, then I would have to get used to my own company. Just me and the coconuts. He said I would have to accept myself, my warts and all. And that we don’t get to choose our warts, they are a part of us and we have to live with them. We can, however, choose our friends. And I am glad I have chosen you. Dr. Hazelhof also said that everyone’s lives are like a very long sidewalk. Some are well paved. Others, like mine, have cracks, banana skins and cigarette butts. Your sidewalk is like mine, but probably not as many cracks. Hopefully one day our sidewalks will meet and we can share a can of condensed milk. You are my best friend. You are my only friend.
I think I’d be hard pressed to find a better definition of the church than this (and St. Augustine, I think, would agree!): a community of friends whose sidewalks—cracks, banana peels, and cigarette butts—meet and share in the joy of God’s covenanted friendship with us, warts and all.