Director: Lucky McKee
In this era of big-budget blockbusters, low-budget movies will occasionally fall through the cracks, going straight to video or getting limited, unheralded theatrical releases. It's a shame too, because some of these movies on the Hollywood fringe are actually pretty good. Such is the case with a little movie called May. Filmed in the fall of 2001 on a budget of 500,000 dollars, it toured the film festival circuit for a year before Lions Gate Films picked it up for an extremely short, extremely limited theatrical run in the summer of 2003. In fact, May only played in a measly nine theaters in the entire country, grossing only $150,277 in a six-week run. Garnering rave reviews from both critics and those who have seen it (including getting a four-star review from Roger Ebert), this tale of a misfit searching for a friend just may be one of the best hidden gems in your local video store's horror section. So let's get to the review, shall we?
For all of her life, May Canady (Angela Bettis) has struggled to fit in. Ostracized as a child due to the lazy eye she kept hidden under a pirate patch, poor May found little help from her obsessive compulsive, perfectionist mother (Merle Kennedy). As a result, she grew into a lonely, awkward adult striving to find her place in the outside world despite an utter and complete lack of any discernable social skills. Her only friend throughout life has been Suzie, a delicate homemade doll she keeps in a glass case. May confides her deepest, darkest secrets to Suzie, who, despite her unwavering silence, seems to give her own brand of very bad advice to her owner. Suzie may be an inanimate object, but to May, she's as real as any flesh and blood friend.
But a real human friend is what May truly desires, and she finally finds one in Adam Stubbs (Jeremy Sisto). An enigmatic mechanic and lover of Dario Argento movies, Adam has been watched from afar by May, who obsesses over him and his seemingly perfect hands. When Adam finally strikes up a conversation with her, she's on Cloud Nine, having finally found someone who she believes will appreciate her odd quirks.
Things are all well and good between May and Adam at first, but things soon get too weird between them. The pair get together to watch his student film from college, a movie that features a couple engaging in carnal cannibalism. That's already bizarre enough, but during an passionately intimate moment, she makes an attempt to mimic the movie and tries biting Adam's bottom lip off. He pushes her away and leaves, claiming that he likes weird, but "not that weird."
When she tries patching things up between them a few days later, she inadvertently discovers that he has not only moved on, but believes May is a freak. The heartbroken May tries moving on as well, eventually getting herself wrapped up with a coworker, lesbian nympho Polly (Anna Faris). Believing she's more than just another sexual conquest, May finds herself having a one night stand with Polly. Unfortunately for her, she quickly finds out how very wrong she is when she finds Polly seducing another woman after stopping by her house unannounced. Rejected once again, May's life begins to crumble around her as she spirals into depression.
She attempts to make one last grasp at hope by volunteering at a day care center for blind children, reaching out to an isolated child named Petey (Rachel David). This ends up backfiring like everything else, as something resembling a show-and-tell activity leads to Suzie's accidental destruction. Forced to the end of her rope, May has nothing left to lose. After ruminating on her belief that there are only perfect parts but no perfect wholes, May decides to quite literally follow the advice her mother gave her as a child: "If you don't have friends, make one." She becomes the freak she was always made to believe she was and sets into motion a plan to create the perfect whole from the perfect parts of the people in her life, to finally have the friend she's always wanted.
While not a perfect film, May has many of the traits necessary to be a movie worth watching. Though telekinesis never comes into play, the movie may understandably draw comparisons to Carrie. Both are stories about young misfit girls that exact bloody revenge in the final act of the movie. (Ironically, Angela Bettis played the titular telekinetic in the 2002 made-for-television version of Carrie). But despite the similarities, Carrie and May are far, far different beasts. May is a well-made, well-acted piece of horror goodness, worth every minute invested into watching it. Making both his feature directing and writing solo debut (after co-writing/directing a movie with Chris Silvertson), Lucky McKee has crafted a intelligently quirky movie. His Tim Burton-esque style of direction is outstanding for a movie of this type, showing wild originality while managing to show his love for various other movies as well, with visual references to films like Taxi Driver, Roman Polanski's Repulsion, and Francis Ford Coppola's version of Dracula populating the movie. Using intriguing camera setups (with assistance from cinematographer Steve Yedlin), well-edited montages, quick subliminal imagery, and great, creepy use of music (composed by Jaye Barnes Luckett) and sound design, McKee's work shows that he has a lot of promise as a director within the horror genre.
Meanwhile, McKee's screenplay is intelligent, witty, funny, and frightening, as if it were a demented version of Ghost World. The characters aren't the typical horror movie stereotypes, but fully developed people. McKee also makes what could be trivial, mundane incidents much deeper. Take, for example, May's cigarettes. May doesn't smoke, but takes up the habit when Adam gives her a pack of his cigarettes. Big whoop, right? I disagree. May treasures that pack of cigarettes, making each one seem as important to her as Adam himself. It is as if they were an extension of his being, and smoking them brings her closer to Adam. I also point at the numerous cracks that appear on Suzie's case throughout the movie. McKee seems to hint that the cracks are a way of giving Suzie a personality of her own, as if she's frustrated with May, trying to keep May all to herself. But if you ask me, the cracks are also representative of the ever-mounting strain being put on May's already tenuous grasp on sanity. With each traumatic moment, a newer, larger crack surfaces, before the case, the doll, and May's fragile psyche are finally smashed to pieces.
Although she is an inanimate object, Suzie is as significant as the lead character. In any other movie, Suzie would have come to life. We would have seen her move, we would have heard her speak. But in May, all of Suzie's living comes from inside May's mind. The doll's cold, unwavering stare is brought to life though the wonderful acting of Angela Bettis. The role demands an actress who can properly relate the character's frailty to the audience, and Bettis is quite up to task. Many of the best horror movie monsters are the ones who can't escape what they do, but are merely victims of their nature. Characters such as Carrie White, Ginger Fitzgerald from Ginger Snaps, Kayako and Toshio from The Grudge, and Sadako Yamamura from Ringu are all like this, and May is among their ranks. Bettis's turn as May manages to draw sympathy and pity, even while she's hacking off the body parts of everyone she knows. Bettis successfully alternates between being shy and adorable, and very creepy, peculiar, and downright insane. The success of May is hinged on the talent of its lead, and Bettis carries the entire movie on her diminutive shoulders. The other two main characters, Jeremy Sisto and Anna Faris, are also very fun to watch. Sisto excellently plays his role as a "real" guy, representing the voice of the audience as he wants to be May's friend, yet begins to back away as he gets uncomfortably deeper into her world. Faris, who you may recognize as the heroine of the Scary Movie films, is wonderful as well, bringing a sense of silly humor to the movie as May's second chance at being loved and accepted. She steps across into "over the top" territory on occasion, but she still makes the character work.
May is a wicked character study, delving into the mind of a social pariah that desperately strives to find flesh-and-blood companionship, but just can't catch a break. As I said in the opening paragraph, May is quite possibly one of the best hidden gems out there. The movie is sweet, sad, and scary, with a lead actress whose performance will keep you glued to the screen. I'll side with Roger Ebert's review and give May four and a half stars, and a hearty seal of recommendation.
Final Rating: ****½