REVIEW: May [2003]

Rating: 7 out of 10.
  • Rating: R | Runtime: 93 minutes
    Release Date: June 6th, 2003 (USA)
    Studio: Lions Gate Films
    Director(s): Lucky McKee
    Writer(s): Lucky McKee

I need more parts.

Kids don’t like weird. They like being weird and marking those weirder than them as pariahs out of jealousy and/or entitlement. The question where it concerns May Dove Canady (Angela Bettis) is whether she was ever actually weird at all. As writer/director Lucky McKee explains via a brief prologue, the kids stayed away from her because of how she handled her lazy eye. Rather than lean into it and make it a non-issue, her mother did everything in her power to force young May to keep it hidden and conversely draw more attention its way. A chicken and egg conundrum arrives as a result. Was May a legitimate outcast regardless of the eye? Or did the attempts to avoid that fate ultimately guarantee it through years of solitude?

McKee leaves the answer to the viewers by fast-forwarding more than a decade to watch as the seemingly well-adjusted little girl from the start is replaced by a bundle of socially awkward nerves. Why? Because she never had a real friend. Her mother scared off the children, May subsequently never learned how to exist amongst other people, and now she doesn’t know where to begin. Well. That’s not entirely true since May does have a confidant in the form of a doll named Susie—the first piece her doll-making mother ever made. It was so special to Mrs. Canady that she told her daughter it wasn’t allowed outside its glass box. Susie became May’s best friend. Her only friend. And it was who she turned to for advice.

May isn’t a supernatural film, though. This doll isn’t possessed, so it’s not really talking to her either. Anything Susie “says” is merely an extension of May’s imagination and therefore the worst advice possible since she has zero clue about subjects like dating and kissing. McKee has drawn this woman as the tragic byproduct of a strained and isolating childhood. And with quick mythologizing to ensure we understand the character has been without human contact beyond a toxically perfectionist mother for years, it’s completely believable to find May has grown up dedicated to a similar line of solitary work. Rather than sew dolls (although she does make her own clothes), she works at an animal hospital helping her veterinarian boss (Ken Davitian) sew up patients. She loves it.

Is it weird? Maybe. Is she weird? Definitely. Whereas children want to be weird while steering clear of it in others, however, adults are often the exact opposite. May wishes she was normal. She wishes she could have all the things well-adjusted people have like relationships and families. And for some reason, the awkward idiosyncrasies that have made those things difficult are suddenly making her interesting and alluring. May is so self-conscious that she can’t help but apologize for her weirdness the instant people get close. She wants to make sure they know. That they’re okay with it. Unfortunately, where they (Jeremy Sisto‘s Adam and Anna Faris‘ Polly) take those words as flirtation before replying they “love weird,” May treats their acceptance as a codependent contract of ownership.

The first two-thirds of the film is therefore quite heartbreaking. Here’s this casualty of an unfortunate upbringing she had no control over desperately trying to make a human connection only to read the cues wrong and eventually go so far overboard as to push their curiosity into disgust. And without an outlet to vent beyond Susie, May suffers what amounts to a psychotic break insofar as blaming the doll for all her own mistakes. It drives her to try even harder. To become obsessive. Jealous. All she wants is for someone to accept her for who she is, but that can be a tall task in your twenties when your attempts to find that person comes under the auspices of sexual desire. Children are blunt. Adults are ambiguous.

I think May works a lot better in hindsight then in the moment as a result. There’s a lot of foreplay, so to speak, when it comes to its genre underpinnings (even if May’s mother’s advice to physically “make your own friend”—such as the doll—”when you can’t find a real one” is hardly subtle in its foreshadowing). We’re left to wonder for an hour whether McKee is going to deliver anything beyond a steadily growing sense of depression and that wait can get tedious since we do want May to be happy. Yes, she’s weird, but there’s an inherent sweetness and innocence that makes us hope she’ll stumble into love even if we know that those currently reciprocating her feelings are only interested in the kink.

We’re waiting for May to come to this realization herself and finally break free with reality as a means of reconciling the fact that reality broke from her a long time ago. Just like the switch flips inside her head (Bettis is really, really good here, especially when all the insecurities melt away so she can go after what she wants with confidence), it flips for the entire movie as the stakes escalate to full-blown violent delights. No matter how effective and entertaining the blood bath proves, however, McKee doesn’t forget the character’s psychology. May isn’t a homicidal maniac. She’s just caught within a manic delusion born from that deep-seated desire to belong that we all have. Success won’t therefore bring joy. Expect more bittersweet heartbreak.

Know that and you should enjoy the ride. I’m already looking back with a greater sense of fondness now after writing than I did after watching. I shouldn’t be surprised, though, considering the hype a cult film like this acquires. I’ve heard how great May was for twenty years without much context, so the slow-paced repetition of the first two acts couldn’t avoid feeling like an endurance test instead of the calculated journey towards nightmare it inevitably proves. Because it’s neither scary nor that graphic despite the third act’s body count. It is a nuanced (more than you might expect at least) psychological portrait of suffering. And with an unforgettable lead performance, its emotional authenticity earns our empathy. May might seem unfeeling, but she really feels too much.

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