THE TITULAR CHARACTERS in the Australian claymation film Mary & Max share two things in common: They're both fans of a fictional TV show called Noblets, and they're both crushingly lonely. Otherwise, they're worlds apart—quite literally. Mary is an eight-year-old girl growing up in Australia trying to overlook the problems life has dealt her: Her mother is an alcoholic and the kids at school tease her about the brown birthmark on her forehead. Mary finds solace in little things, like tins of sweetened condensed milk and her pet rooster, Ethel. One day, Mary picks Max's name at random out of a New York phone book and writes him a letter.

Max, meanwhile, is an obese Jew living alone in New York City. Voiced by Philip Seymour Hoffman, he attends an Overeaters Anonymous meeting, but otherwise skulks alone in his apartment with his pets, concocting bizarre recipes like chocolate hot dogs and spaghetti hamburgers. Mary's letter sends Max's life into a tailspin; he has crippling anxiety issues and undiagnosed Asperger's syndrome, and after reading Mary's letter, his small, precariously balanced world is thrown out of whack. But Max writes back, and an unlikely friendship develops between the two pen pals.

Adam Elliot, best known for the Oscar-winning short Harvie Krumpet, here delivers a marvelous feature-length debut; Mary & Max's opening stretches are sweetly and gently hilarious, aided by wonderful narration from Barry Humphries (that's Dame Edna to you) and cute animation that makes good use of the film's brown and gray color palette. But these are some seriously fucked-up characters, and Mary & Max takes a darker turn than you'd expect for a movie made out of little bits of clay. With almost no dialogue—just Humphries' narration and the voiceovers from the two letter writers— Mary & Max becomes a heartbreaking story of a very weird friendship.