Viking Night: May
By Bruce Hall
July 1, 2014
“If you can’t find a friend, make one!”
This is not necessarily bad advice. I might even go so far as to say this is the whole point of art. Creative people sometimes take to creating things as a way to express themselves. They paint, they sculpt, and they form rock bands and score with college girls. Either way, their art either becomes their only friend, or a means toward finding one. And sometimes, it’s both. May Canady (Angela Bettis) grew up with a lazy eye, which made other children hate her. She also had a mother whose parenting style is from the Dolls-n-Shame school of thought. There’s nothing wrong with making dolls (yes there is), but when it’s your go-to means of problem solving you just end up with a lot of unsolved problems - and a house full of creepiness.
For her birthday one year, May’s mother gives her a hideous, pasty, dead-eyed doll. It’s the first one she ever made as a child, and she encourages May to become best friends with it. She does, and a decade later, she’s still talking to the thing. May grows into an awkward, reclusive 20-something who has no friends and has never been touched by a man who didn’t write her a prescription afterward. I imagine spending your formative years hanging out with vaguely humanoid inanimate objects puts a real kibosh on your social development. So May is caught off guard when her sexuality switches on for the first time, at the sight of hunky handyman Adam Stubbs (Jeremy Sisto - looking so much like john Travolta I may need therapy).
She’s too afraid to approach him, of course, so she does what any rational person would and starts benignly stalking him. When she’s not hiding in the bushes twirling her hair and talking to herself, May works as a veterinary assistant. She shares details of her new obsession with the closest thing she has to a human friend, Polly the Receptionist (Anna Faris). During the conversation it happens to come to light that both girls like to cut themselves with scalpels. Obviously, this blossoms into a weird/sexy relationship you really just need to see for yourself. Around this time May finally comes face to face with Adam, and wouldn’t you know - they hit it off! He’s an aspiring filmmaker with a death fetish, and her astrological sign is Lee Harvey Oswald.
For the first time in her life, May has friends. Despite having the I.Q. of a box of raisins, Polly is able to give May what people who live with dolls consider a social life. And thanks to Adam, May has someone to share hilarious work stories with, like the time Dr. Slipupsky’s used the wrong sutures and a dog’s guts fell out! Life is all disemboweled puppy dogs and ice cream, until it’s not. Since her childhood was a Charles Dickens novel, May has no real idea how to maintain meaningful long term relationships. And since her only friends to date have been soulless little plastic cadavers, she doesn’t pick up on nuance very well. Little mistakes become big ones, and eventually things start to go downhill. And you know what happens to mentally divergent people when things start to go downhill.
May was filmmaker Lucky McKee’s first feature, and it’s a pretty good one. As with most great debuts, May feels like a movie someone made knowing they might never get to make another one. But it’s in a good way. Despite their eccentricities, most of the characters behave in believable, human ways. May’s slow spiral into Spinster Hell is interrupted by something that makes her grow in ways she isn’t emotionally prepared to handle. It makes the first 30 minutes of this 90 minute film feel like 60, but it ends up being worth the wait. There’s an unexpected poignancy to what we’re seeing, with an intelligent, inevitable sense of black irony behind it. I’d stop short of calling May a horror classic, but it’s definitely an overlooked gem.
Bettis is asked to cover a lot of range here, from waifish to coquettish, awkward to imperious and a handful of points in between. Her portrayal of May is so organic it suggests either Bettis is THAT good of an actress, or she rules over an unsmiling army of hell-dolls in real life, so it just comes easy to her. Whatever the case, her portrayal is the thread holding everything together. It’s a ragged tapestry of evolving mental decay, and one that has you thinking a lot about loneliness and isolation - and under certain circumstances, how they might drive a person to act out. And rarely does a horror film force anyone to consider the careless way we are sometimes cruel to each other - and what could happen if you do that to the wrong person.
It’s hard to ask a movie for more - although explosions and giant robots are always encouraged. Even if horror’s not usually your thing, May is a worthwhile experience that covers a lot more emotional ground than you’re used to seeing from the genre. McKee doesn’t make a lot of movies but when he does, they tend to be worth watching. And May is a little more than worth watching, it’s an occasionally funny, often sad, always whimsical deep dive into the world of someone who just wants to be loved, but sadly wouldn’t know what to do with it if they found it. So remember the next time you give your kids offhand advice, be careful. They tend to take things literally - especially when the dolls command it.