I think we have a new winner for the most sensitive portrayal of autism in film. Ever.
Mary & Max is only partially about Asperger Syndrome, which the character of Max has. It is more about the unique friendship struck up between himself and Mary, a lonely girl from Australia who writes to him on a whim after picking his address out of a New York phone book. The two form a bond that may seem unorthodox to neurotypicals, but to me, it made perfect sense. For people with AS, the task of friendships, particularly friendships with people in your own age group, can be daunting. It seemed natural to me that Max would more readily accept a friendship with someone who was younger than him, since children tend to be more forgiving of autism's special package of quirks.
Max, voiced by Philip Seymour Hoffman (Whom I think is neurotypical, correct me if I'm wrong) is matter of fact, well-rehearsed in many facts, and has difficulty with certain situations that can lead to a need for anti-anxiety medication... Just like me. The only time he's mentioned as having savant-like abilities is when he notes casually that he taught himself to read with both eyes, left page for left eye, right page for right eye. This is actually an attribute he shares with Kim Peek, one of the most frequently non-autistic people to be labelled as autistic. But the fact that Max's mind, while having many autistic qualities and having several special talents and an affinity with numbers, was depicted as not being in the super-genius range, was a welcome relief for me. Finally, someone I could relate to, whose intelligence didn't pose an intimidating challenge or make people with autism ask "Why can't I do that?"
What was most interesting to me was Max's attitude towards his Asperger Syndrome. He did not display any self-pity, loathing, or wishes for neurotypical life. He was proud to be autistic, and can even be seen in one part of the film posing in an "Aspies for Freedom" shirt! When Mary makes a faux pas that a lot of aspies would recognize as common curebie tendencies, Max acts as I would act in the same situation. He remarks that changing his Asperger Syndrome would be like trying to change his eye colour.
The film takes place over two decades, and it is, as I said before, a very accurate, touching portrait of what real life with autism is like. There's no pity for Max, only a love expressed for him and his bond with Mary. I wholeheartedly recommend it. I hope that even though it's no Oscar-grabbing prize winner, it plants the seeds of neurodiverse thought and autism acceptance in film festival goer's brains, and gets them to think twice before slapping a "Let's cure you!" attitude on.