A tale of the enduring pen-friendship between two very different people: Mary Dinkle, a chubby 8-year-old girl living in the suburbs of Melbourne, and Max Horovitz, a 44-year-old severely obese Jewish man with Asperger's Syndrome living in the chaos of New York.

SCREENING: SBS ONE, Wednesday 26 January @10.05pm

An achingly beautiful character study of an enduring friendship

Adam Elliot’s first foray into feature filmmaking after his Oscar-winning short film Harvie Krumpet is a deliciously sentimental film whose offbeat sensibility manages to keep it out of the realm of schmaltz.

Mary Dinkle is an awkward eight year-old with an active imagination who finds it hard to make friends, or find people willing to answer her big questions about the world. She’s bursting with energy but hides her light under a bushel, barely noticed by her reclusive father and self-medicating mother.

Max Horowitz is an obese New Yorker living with Asperger Syndrome; he prefers the solitude of his apartment because his literal mind often struggles to make sense of the fast-paced world. He’s not big on interpersonal relationships and though he’s a New Yorker through and through, the prospect of sex in the city sets off alarming panic attacks.

Through a random twist of fate, these two vulnerable outcasts strike up an unlikely pen friendship that develops over a shared love of chocolate and television character figurines, and strengthens to become the relationship that sustains them throughout their lives.

There are quirky touches of Australiana all throughout Elliot’s rusty, dusty, sepia-toned suburbia, which lies in contrast to his New York – a brash, bleak and black-heavy metropolis. Elliot celebrates the beauty of each environment but doesn’t shy away from the desolation that each setting can engender.

The travails of Mary’s and Max’s lives are put into context by Barry Humphries’ wonderfully worthy Voice of God narration. He leads a stellar voice cast which includes Phillip Seymour Hoffman as the breathy, deadpan Max, and Toni Collette/Bethany Whitmore as the enthusiastic but emotional Mary. Memorable cameos include Renee Geyer as the husky Mrs Dinkle, and Eric Bana as the stuttering, sexually-ambiguous spunkrat who becomes the object of the young Mary’s affection.

Elliot’s fingerprints are all over the film (and its claymation characters), and fans of his earlier films, the family trilogy (Uncle, Cousin and Brother), and Harvie Krumpet, won’t be disappointed. Mary & Max is infused with Elliot’s characteristic tragicomedy, in which gentle gags are tinged with sadness but are delivered in a way that feels neither cloying nor manipulative.

Deceptively innocent, the film tackles Big Issues such as mental illness and loneliness with a sense of humour, but the underlying sensitivity never mocks its subjects. Yes, it’s a film for grown ups but there are more than enough wee, poo and bum jokes to satisfy a younger audience. Curious tweens with a healthy sense of adventure and a mature outlook would be touched by its tender characterisations.

If the film falters slightly it is in the forward momentum of its narrative at times, but this is a relatively minor criticism of an achingly beautiful character study of an enduring friendship and the ties that bind.