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Why Mary and Max is the Most Honest Depiction of Autism in Film



Feature by: Aaron Gillingham

Autism is a condition that tends to be lost in translation whenever it is depicted in film. Usually, this is down to one of two things. Sometimes it is due to filmmakers tackling the subject with good intentions but missing a crucial piece of the puzzle. The other, more important, reason is because the autism spectrum is so incredibly varied. Many films attempt to look at autism generally through the eyes of one individual, which doesn’t always work as symptoms can drastically change from person to person. Say there are two high functioning autistic people standing next to each other, whatever one person’s ticks might be may not apply to another who has their own set of symptoms they have to deal with.

Some films in the past have come close to tapping into specific aspects of the condition but the results can vary quite drastically. For instance, something like Cha Cha Real Smooth (2022) views it in a very grounded and kindhearted manner whereas The Accountant (2016) uses the idea of autism to justify the main character’s unique skills and abilities. However, in the 15 years since it was first released, there has yet to be a more honest and accurate portrayal of autism than in the underrated stop-motion masterpiece Mary and Max (2009)

Directed by Australian animation filmmaker Adam Elliot, Mary and Max tells the story of two pen-pals, from other sides of the globe, who open up to each other in the letters they send over many years. Inspired by the real life pen-pal Elliot himself had for over 20 years, the film looks at the many similarities and differences of these two characters, from their cultures all the way down to how they operate as individuals. 

Immediately there is contrast between the two characters which becomes less of an issue the more they get to know each other. There’s Mary, an 8-year-old living in Australia who is constantly bullied both at school and at home and there’s Max, a morbidly obese 44-year-old autistic man living on his own in New York City. Their friendship blossoms over time, not necessarily from what they have in common, but from the ways in which they can both be open about their lives and experiences. 

Max’s autism is portrayed in the film in a very matter of fact way, mostly due to it being explained from his perspective in the letters he writes to Mary. A lot of elements to his condition are exaggerated through the animation and visual style of the film but it thankfully never feels over the top. Instead, it uses its visual language to emphasise specified points or symptoms Max suffers from in an effective attempt to explain these things to the audience and make his struggles more relatable.

The film also brilliantly shows how, in some areas, Max and Mary are able to relate to each other despite their physical and mental differences. Due to his condition, Max is a very lonely individual who is prone to panic attacks if the slightest part of his daily routine is interrupted. Mary, though she may not be able to relate to him from a routine point of view, fully understands where Max is coming from as she too feels alone as a result of constant bullying, not having any friends and receiving regular abuse from her alcohol dependent mother.

Max has no ambitions in life and is, for the most part, satisfied with his existence, especially in the way he repeats certain things every day. The social complications of Max’s condition become very apparent during key moments where he struggles to understand thoughts and behaviours Mary, and most other people, find normal. When he misinterprets something she says and tries to implement it in the real world, or if he experiences something out of his comfort zone, it causes him to revert back to one of his many severe panic attacks, some of which can last a whole day.

The many ways in which Max tries to conform to society’s rules of normality are feelings that are all too real for those dealing with autism. The fact that every attempt he makes fails immensely and puts him back to square one emphasises the loneliness he lives in and that want for connection that, for most people on the spectrum, only sometimes becomes a reality. These perspectives are beautifully realised within the film, so much so that when it decides to delve into darker territory with concepts of death and the idea of there being a cure for autism, it never comes across as overdramatised. Sadly, these are real things that those with autism have debated and struggled with for years and the film chooses to present it with a genuine feeling of sympathy and tenderness behind it.

For an animated film, Mary and Max tackles a lot of hard hitting themes. Obviously, Max’s autism is one of the primary topics at the centre of the film but it also addresses a lot of other serious issues that all feed into the portrayal of autism and the relationship between Mary and Max. Themes such as neglect, abuse, obesity, addiction, alcoholism, isolation and suicide all become relevant at various points throughout the film. These themes are greatly enhanced in the film’s visuals but are always balanced with the right amount of severity and dark humour. One scene may focus on a tragic loss and will let that moment sit with the audience and then in another scene there may be a fart joke or two. The film knows the perfect moments to prioritise drama through stillness but also when it needs to take advantage of a humorous opportunity that arises in the situations Mary or Max find themselves in.

The film has a very distinct personality to it that encapsulates the two drastic settings the film takes place in along with the thoughts and feelings shared by the characters. It’s a very playful style that isn’t loud or abrasive. Instead, cleverly combining  its personality, humour and cartoony visual style to make these, normally hard to talk about, topics more palatable and accessible for audiences to understand and discuss them in real scenarios. Not to mention the music which accentuates the ups and downs of crucial scenes as well as the impressive voice cast, including the likes of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Toni Collette, that bring these characters to life.

The representation of autism in both film and TV is commonly rabbit holed into a few key stereotypes and quirks that are commonly not representative of those who actually deal with it on a regular basis. Mary and Max proves that with enough care, consideration and patience you can still tell a thoroughly engaging story whilst effectively attempting to showcase the complexities and nuances of a condition such as autism. It just takes the right person to look at it honestly and not sacrifice its portrayal for the sake of plot convenience, which sadly is the case most of the time.

What Adam Elliot was able to craft with Mary and Max is just as poignant as it is funny and is still just as important now as it was 15 years ago. It’s a film that never feels like it’s talking down to the viewer about these issues and instead presents them in a way that reflects how these characters see and react to everything. For a film that focuses on autism it feels like a breath of fresh air and there hasn’t been anything like it since.

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