Australian Council on Children and the Media

Mary and Max

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Not suitable under 13, not recommended under 15 due to themes, sexual references and substance abuse.

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This topic contains:

  • overall comments and recommendations
  • details of classification and consumer advice lines for Mary and Max
  • a review of Mary and Max completed by the Australian Council on Children and the Media (ACCM) on 9 April 2009.

Overall comments and recommendations

Children under 13 Not suitable due to themes of suicide, bullying and mental illness, sexual references and substance abuse.
Children aged 13-15 Not recommended due to themes of suicide, bullying and mental illness.

About the movie

This section contains details about the movie, including its classification by the Australian Government Classification Board and the associated consumer advice lines.

Name of movie: Mary and Max
Classification: PG
Consumer advice lines: Mild themes and sexual references
Length 92 minutes

ACCM review

This review of the movie contains the following information:

A synopsis of the story

The year is 1976, and Mary Daisy Dinkle (voice of Bethany Whitmore) is an unloved eight-year-old girl, who lives in the Melbourne suburb of Mount Waverly. Mary, who wears thick glasses, has eyes the “colour of muddy puddles” and has a birthmark “the colour of poo” on her forehead,  is constantly bullied at school and her only friend is a pet rooster named Ethel. Mary’s mother is an alcoholic chain-smoking shoplifter, and her father works in a factory attaching strings to teabags. His hobby is taxidermy and he pays Mary no attention at all.
Mary is a little confused about where babies come from and one day while in a post office, rips a page from an American phone book, picks a name at random and writes to that person asking them where babies come from. The name Mary picks is Max Jerry Horowitz (voice of Phillip Seymour Hoffman), an overweight forty four-year-old Jewish man, who lives in New York and suffers from Asperger’s syndrome. Max lives a very ordered life. He suffers from severe panic attacks when confronted by anything new, doesn’t understand verbal signals, has an imaginary friend named Mr. Ravioli, keeps a pet fish, has a fondness for chocolate and regularly sees his psychologist.
Mary includes a chocolate bar with her letter and Max writes back,  telling Mary much of his life’s history, although his understanding of where babies comes from is just as confused as hers. As the years pass, their letter writing continues and their friendship grows.
When Mary is a young woman (voice of Toni Collette) her father dies and leaves her some money which  she uses to go to university to study diseases of the mind. She marries the Greek boy next door, Damian Popodopolous (Eric Bana). Mary wants to cure the world of mental illness and writes a book about Max and the unintended consequences of this book have a major affect on Mary’s life

Themesinfo

Children and adolescents may react adversely at different ages to themes of crime, suicide, drug and alcohol dependence, death, serious illness, family breakdown, death or separation from a parent, animal distress or cruelty to animals, children as victims, natural disasters and racism. Occasionally reviews may also signal themes that some parents may simply wish to know about.

Asperger’s syndrome; bullying; mental illness; suicide

Use of violenceinfo

Research shows that children are at risk of learning that violence is an acceptable means of conflict resolution when violence is glamourised, performed by an attractive hero, successful, has few real life consequences, is set in a comic context and / or is mostly perpetrated by male characters with female victims, or by one race against another.

Repeated exposure to violent content can reinforce the message that violence is an acceptable means of conflict resolution. Repeated exposure also increases the risks that children will become desensitised to the use of violence in real life or develop an exaggerated view about the prevalence and likelihood of violence in their own world.

There is some low-level violence, slapstick violence and bullying in this movie including:

  • When caught shoplifting from a post office, Mary’s mother is chased from the shop.
  • We hear gunshots and see a street sign being shot at.
  • We hear about how Max’s mother shot herself when he was six-years-old.
  • We hear about how a man killed all of Max’s friends.
  • Mary’s neighbour Len, who suffers from agoraphobia, lost his legs while he was a prisoner in Vietnam. We see several images of Len in a wheelchair minus both his legs.
  • At school a group of boys forcibly take Mary’s lunch from her and then urinate on the sandwiches. They call Mary “poo face”. As a result of being bullied, Mary hides in a box. A group of students laugh at Mary and we see Mary crying, distraught and very upset.
  • Max remembers his own experiences of being bullied at school and we see images of a young Max being beaten up by schoolboy bullies. The memories cause Max to have an anxiety attack.
  • Mary hides dog poo in the school sandpit hoping that the bullies will get covered in dog poo.
  • A bloody description of how babies are born.
  • Max has several anxiety attacks, standing on a box in the corner of his room sweating and shaking and looking very distressed.
  • Max receives shock treatment in hospital.
  • Fantasy images show Max’s pets eating his skeleton.
  • An air conditioner in the side of Max’s apartment falls out of the wall and lands on the head of a man in the street below, killing him.
  • Throughout the film we see numerous images of Max’s pets dying and being accidentally killed. The accidental deaths include a fish being flushed down the toilet, being minced in a blender and being cooked in a toaster.
  • Mary’s father is killed by a tidal wave.
  • Mary’s mother accidentally drinks embalming fluid and dies while she is drunk.
  • Mary falls off a couch while drunk. 
  • While in a state of severe depression Mary attempts suicide. We see Mary reaching for a bottle of sleeping pills and then standing on a table with a rope tied around her neck (we see a blurred image of a foetus inside Mary). Mary aborts the attempt when her neighbour knocks on the door.
  • Max picksup an old homeless man and starts to strangle him. He stops before he causes the man any real physical harm.

Material that may scare or disturb children

Under fiveinfo

Children under five are most likely to be frightened by scary visual images, such as monsters, physical transformations.

In addition to the above-mentioned violent scenes and scary visual images, there are some scenes in this movie that could scare or disturb children under five, including the following:

  • the death of Max’s pets as described above
  • images of Max’s brain smiling
  • When Mary finally goes to America to meet Max, she finds him sitting on his couch dead. He appears to have died peacefully, and we see Mary crying.

Aged five to eightinfo

Children aged five to eight will also be frightened by scary visual images and will also be disturbed by depictions of the death of a parent, a child abandoned or separated from parents, children or animals being hurt or threatened and / or natural disasters.

The above mentioned violent scenes in this movie that could scare or disturb children in this age group.

Aged eight to thirteeninfo

Children aged eight to thirteen are most likely to be frightened by realistic threats and dangers, violence or threat of violence and / or stories in which children are hurt or threatened.

In addition to the above mentioned violent scenes, there are some scenes in this movie that could scare or disturb children aged eight to thirteen, including the following:

  • Children in this age group could be particularly disturbed by scenes of bullying, Mary’s suicide attempt and the death of Max.

Over thirteeninfo

Children over the age of thirteen are most likely to be frightened by realistic physical harm or threats, molestation or sexual assault and / or threats from aliens or the occult.

Children in this age group may also be disturbed by some of the themes and scenes in this film, including bullying, mental illness and suicide

Product placement

None of concern

Sexual references

The film contains a number of sexual references throughout.

  • Examples include:We hear a peer telling a young Mary how babies are made. The explanation involved being in love and doing “sexing”- rubbing each other to make babies. “Ladies get knocked up and babies come out their vagina with lots of blood and tinned spaghetti”.
  • Mary says that her mother told her that “babies are found in the bottom of a glass of beer”.  
  • When Max describes to a young Mary how babies are made, he relives what he was told by his mother with his mother telling him stories about how babies come from “dirty prostitutes”, atheists and Catholic nuns (we see images of an egg coming out of the rear end of a nun.  
  • When writing a letter to Mary, Max tells her that he used to work in a condom factory but has never used a condom himself.
  • Mary talking about her next door neighbour (who suffers from agoraphobia) as suffering from a disease called homophobia.
  • Mary’s husband Damian leaves Mary and leaves her a letter telling her that he has left her because he has fallen in love with a man named Desmond, who is his pen-pal.

Nudity and sexual activity

There is some nudity and sexual activity in this movie, including:

  • Max is sexually harassed by a woman (it is always the same woman), however, due to Max’s Asperger’s syndrome he is unable to identify what is really occurring. At one time when Max is alone in a lift with the woman, we see the doors close and when they open Max’s face is covered in lipstick. In a bid to stop the sexual harassment, Max rubs onions under his armpits hoping that the smell will drive off unwanted affections.  
  • We see a frontal image of Max naked in the moonlight and later in the film a frontal image of Max naked with his testicles hanging down between his legs.
  • A man sits in a sports car with a woman sitting next to him. The woman wears a revealing low cut top.
  • Mary marries Damian, the boy next door. We see images and hear narration suggesting that Mary and Damian are sexually active with Mary becoming bold and seductive.

Use of substances

There is some use of substances in this movie, including:

  • Mary’s mother is an alcoholic and a chain smoker. We constantly see her drinking and she always has a cigarette hanging from the side of her mouth. She is frequently drunk, staggering, appearing to have a muddled mind or asleep on the couch in a drunken stupor.
  • A man at a bus stop smokes what appears to be cannabis
  • When Max breaks off his friendship with Mary, she becomes very depressed and begins to drink heavily. We see Mary drinking sherry, behaving in an intoxicated manner, staggering about her house and lying on the couch.
  • When Mary attempts suicide, we see her reaching for a bottle of sedatives in the cupboard, although we do not see Mary taking the drugs.

Coarse language

No coarse language of concern, but putdowns including “poo face” and “wog”

In a nutshell

Mary and Max, based on a true story, is a dark animated adult comedy about childhood, relationships, and social and mental health issues. The greater part of the story is presented through narration (voice of Barry Humphries).
The film is deeply moving, with the darkness of the comedy at times making it shocking rather than humorous. The serious themes make it a film for adults and older adolescents. The main messages from this movie are:

  • True friendships are made through the heart, not the eyes.
  • We are who we are, there is no magic beauty cream that we can rub on and make the wrinkles go away.
  • No one is perfect, our imperfection are part of us and are what makes us who we are, it is just that some people have less imperfections than others.
  • While we can not choose how we are made and what imperfection we have, we can choose our friends.   


Values in this movie that parents may wish to reinforce with their children include:

  • the value and strength of friendship
  • forgiveness
  • acceptance 

This movie could also give parents the opportunity to discuss with older children attitudes and behaviours, and their real-life consequences, such as

  • bullying
  • alcohol abuse
  • how a lack of parental love and affection affects children
  • suicide

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