Grace Pudel (the voice of Succession’s Sarah Snook) is wishing goodbye to her elderly friend Pinky (Jacki Weaver), who’s currently prone on her deathbed. Once she finally perishes, Grace––who’s somewhere in her 20s, yet wears a black beanie customized with the pop-out eyelids of a snail––parks herself on a nearby bench and begins narrating her life story (in a manner that’s a tad Forrest Gump-ian) to her own pet snail Sylvie, who slowly slithers away as she’s setting herself free. Such events being in early Aardman-style claymation certainly enhances their kookiness. 

But regarding this animated medium, Memoir of a Snail’s director Adam Elliot (following-up his enduringly popular 2009 feature Mary and Max) prefers the term “clayography”––his own portmanteau of claymation and biography––which does someway capture the uniqueness of what he’s doing. He specializes in exhaustive stop-motion character studies. Which isn’t to say they lack storytelling escalation, but underlines how little we grasped about the likes of Wallace, Gromit, and Jack Skellington’s psychology or motivations. Elliot strongly favors voiceover as a primary tool for exposition––of course, a sin for various theorists of film storytelling––and Memoir of a Snail displays the limitations of combining this approach with his various still tableaux of clay, paint, and paper.

At best a form of Australian literary gothic all bound up in isolation and eccentricity, à la Jane Campion’s Sweetie and An Angel at My Table, and in less-convincing moments a quirk-drunk Addams Tenenbaums, the film whisks us through the coming-of-age of two screwy siblings, twins Grace and Gideon (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and their troubled upbringing in the suburban backwaters of Australia. Whilst magic-realist in temperament, with quotidian events put through subjective distortions, we still feel grounded in the ’80s and ’90s, as all the handwritten post, polaroid snaps, and rotary phones suggest. It’s wedded to Grace’s point-of-view, giving Elliot’s own perspective a bit of plausible deniability, but the characters’ embrace of outsiderdom comes with its own patina of judgment and maybe superiority towards others; the Pudel’s home life with their wheelchair-bound ex-street performer father Percy is of near-squalor, yes, but they’re the only artistes on their block, thank you very much, with leisure time comprising highish-brow reading material on the settee, as the camera shows the leather-bound book spines in insert shots.

A counterpart to Grace’s alterations of her clothes, Gideon suggests The Cure’s Robert Smith were he in elementary school, a moody fringe and black eyeliner over shorts and sneakers. The character designs of the adults take their cues from the gargoyles we see today on preserved gothic architecture, not least the social services lady who sends them to separate foster homes across the country: Grace to a benign-but-dull childless couple in Canberra; Gideon to intolerant, evangelical Christian apple farmers in a more rural area. Grace maintains her latchkey kid sensibilities and befriends the old bohemian Pinky, who becomes both a surrogate mother and sisterly, misfit companion, linking it to the kinship between outsiders that marked Mary and Max and its endearing, sometimes manipulative mode of pathos. 

Memoir of a Snail will enchant viewers that gravitate towards innovative animation; it’s first being unveiled at Annecy, considered to be the world’s leading animation festival. It’s dazzling as handiwork and world-building, but more questionable if we scrutinize it as just as a work or piece of psychological realism, which it has aspirations of being. The attention to detail and creativity brought to every environment, improved with no CGI, really makes you lean in and squint, venerating this mode of animation as the best to show darkly surreal imagery and corridors of the unconscious. (David Lynch, of course, still defers to stop-motion whenever he now-infrequently embarks on a film project.) The sign humor and quick-fire sight gags also evoke The Simpsons. We’re squarely in this realm of “adult” animation, reminding us there’s always room on the payroll of broadsheet papers and posh magazines for political cartoonists––simple outlines and borders for drawn or sculpted figures, coupled with expressionistic exaggeration, just get more efficient laughs. 

But the pervasive interest in and conclusions on sex would arguably face more scrutiny if the film weren’t animated. Sexual difference, curiosity, and disgust emerge as Memoir of a Snail’s key motifs, from a revelation about Grace’s foster parents to a belatedly discovered fetish of her first husband, down to the grotesque, humiliated way all the film’s older characters are portrayed with their unrequited attractions and the aging of their bodies. It has an adolescent tinge––as a value judgement and pejorative, rather than a description linking to the YA story focus––that trades on shocks and shame, depleting the film’s insights into troubled states of being while remaining such a delight to look at, and often so funny. 

Memoir of a Snail premiered at Annecy International Animation Film Festival and will be released by IFC Films.

Grade: B

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