I don’t know if Mary and Max is sweetly bleak or bleakly sweet, but it’s certainly a surprising combination of those two. The feature debut from Adam Elliot, who won an Oscar with his short film Harvie Krumpet, Mary and Max is a strange, dark and unsentimental claymation movie that follows the unlikely pen pal friendship between a young Australian girl and an older, obese and troubled New Yorker.

Elliot doesn’t flinch from his character’s problems, issues, insecurities and small ugly spots, but he also never judges them. The film is darkly comic and brutally honest about life and the ways we don’t deal with it. Mary is a sweet, nerdy girl with a birthmark on her forehead that the narrator calls ‘poo colored’ and whose parents are at best absent (her father) and at worst drunk (her mother). An outcast and alone, she has no friends at all and no one to answer her strange questions about life. She finds a New York City phone book and chooses a random person, writing to them and asking if babies are made in the US the same way they are made in Australia (Mary believes they’re found at the bottoms of mugs of beer).

The person she chooses is Max; born on a shtetl to a suicidal mother, confused by the world around him and unable to make connections, inventor of the chocolate hot dog and weekly participant in Overeater’s Anonymous, Max becomes fascinated by the young girl’s letter, which includes a crayon self-portrait. The two strike up a correspondance, his letters strange outsider ruminations on life and hers peeks into the pain of growing up an outsider.

Episodic, Mary and Max spans a decade of the friendship as Mary grows up and goes to college and Max gets diagnosed with Asperger’s. The episodic nature of the narrative makes the film feel more real and organic, but it also lends to the feeling of the movie being a little too long. Elliot is fairly adept at juggling downers and comedy, mixing absurdity and emotional realism, but by the end you’re sort of on to his game and each time something good happens you’re left wondering when the other shoe will drop.

Philip Seymour Hoffman supplies the voice of Max, delivering a funny, soulful performance. Toni Colette is the voice of grown up Mary, and has a smaller, less meaty role. The real VO champ, though, is Barry Humphries – Dame Edna! – as the narrator, delivering his lines in a knowing, arch and yet compassionate way. Right from the opening moments  – where Humphries says Mary’s eyes look like muddy puddles – we understand that the narrator won’t be pulling any punches or making any apologies for these characters, but it also soon become obvious the tenderness the narrator (and the filmmaker) holds for them.

I’m not getting across the silliness of Mary and Max; the movie is often laugh out loud funny, but the comedy – as good as it is – is not as impressive as the serious stuff that Elliot fits in without ever detracting from the laughs. But it’s the laughs that offer the in point to this odd, quirky and sometimes ugly (think a grungier Wallace and Grommit) but unexpectedly touching and adult movie.

8.5 out of 10