I must confess that Indianapolis-born actor Doug Jones (Hellboy, Pan's Labyrinth) isn't really an actor I've often associated with Indy's own Heartland Film Festival, yet such was the connection I made as I found myself watching co-writer/director Mikeal Burgin's latest cinematic effort, My Friend Max.
In the film, Jones is Max, the imaginary friend of Thea (Kaylynn Burgin), a grieving young girl with festering wounds so deeply integrated into her being that she has shut herself off from virtually every aspect of her daily life much to the dismay of her determined yet occasionally misguided mother (Madison R. Wells).
If it sounds like My Friend Max is going to travel down a familiar and formulaic road, rest assured that Burgin and his cast and crew have crafted something quite special with My Friend Max, that rare family friendly short film that manages to recognize the emotional and cognitive intelligence of its younger characters while also allowing them to exude childlike wonder and innocence.
It is to the credit of Burgin and co-writer Chuck Mittan's insightful and authentic script and an extraordinary performance by Doug Jones that one is never 100% certain whether or not Max is real even as the closing credits are rolling. The friendship between Max and Thea is so richly developed that one can't help but want it to be real and want to have a friend like Max. When Thea's mother begins having concerns about Thea's unhealthy fixation with her imaginary friend, a friendship with classmate Billy (Cooper Pierce) is at first manipulated into being before it begins to take on a rich authenticity all its own.
There were times during My Friend Max that I found myself remembering that feeling I had the first time I found myself watching the criminally underrated Lars and the Real Girl, somewhat ironically a film that screened at the Heartland Film Festival. Yet, it would really be doing a disservice to Burgin to go with my gut instinct and declare My Friend Max a sort of Lars and the Real Girl for kids.
Oh, and don't worry. I'm not talking about anatomically correct dolls here.
I am, however, talking about a similar weaving together of loss and grief, hope and innocence, a desperation for connection and an absolute fear of it as being common bonds between the two also similarly exceptional films.
Young Kaylynn Burgin gives a low-key, heartfelt performance as Thea, embodying the young girl with a remarkable depth of soul yet also a playfulness and, at times, an inability to see beyond her own face. Her scenes with Jones are tender and sweet and the kind of scenes that leave you looking at the buddy sitting next to you saying "I'm not crying. You're crying."
As the mother, Madison R. Wells nicely balances being the one tasked with not believing in this imaginary friend while still projecting that compassion and maternal instinct. So, too, Cooper Pierce is terrific as the young man for whom encouraging a friendship isn't really necessary as he's already a wee bit taken by Thea.
D.P. Shaun O'Connell deserves kudos for capturing the film's quiet vulnerability alongside its almost Drop Dead Fred type humor, while Eros Cartechini's original music is emotionally resonant and truly memorable.
My Friend Max picked up the prize for Best Screenplay at the 2015 Snake Alley Festival of Film in its formative stages and is now getting set for its sure to be successful festival run. Indeed, it's hard to picture anything but success for My Friend Max, a heartfelt and inspiring gem and the kind of film that you find yourself immediately wanting to watch again and again and again. If you get a chance, check it out during its upcoming festival run.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic