Opening Night at Sundance

January 16, 2009
If last night's opening film and festivities are any indication of the 2009 Sundance Film Festival as a whole, we are in for quite a week. The man himself, festival founder Robert Redford, opened the 25th annual event with a criticism of the current White House and a nod to the changes ahead, prompting thunderous applause from the nearly 1,300 attendees. Redford further expressed the importance of funding independent film and thanked all the supporters, large and small, for making the festival possible. With such a feel-good vibe in the capacity crowd, it was time to sit back and take in the opening night film, Mary and Max. On hand to introduce the film were director Adam Elliot and producer Melanie Coombs. Both Australian, they were charming and gracious, pleased that not only was this the first time Sundance had selected an Australian movie to open the festival in its 25 years, it was also the first time Sundance had chosen an animated feature to kick off the week. Many supporters of Mary and Max were in attendance, including the American funders, several animators and art directors, and Elliot's partner, Dan, who received a very special thank you from the director. Going into the film, I didn't know what to expect from Mary and Max. I knew the director was gay (it's my job to know these things) and that Toni Collette, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Eric Bana and Barry Humphries (AKA "Dame Edna") voiced the characters. Beyond that, I was a bit in the dark. What unfolded before me was 92 minutes of beautiful and careful storytelling about two lonely people forming an unexpected -- and much-needed -- friendship. When the film begins, Mary is an awkward eight-year-old Australian. Max is an obese New Yorker living with asperger's syndrome. By chance, the two become pen pals and forge a friendship lasting over two decades. The film is both heart-breaking and heart-warming; a quirky story that could potentially appeal to people of all backgrounds. The need for true friendship is a lovely theme to kickstart this festival. It reminds us what's really important in life.