(2002) Written and directed by: Lucky McKee; Starring: Angela Bettis, Jeremy Sisto, Anna Faris, James Duval and Nichole Hiltz; Available on DVD
“If you can’t find a friend, make one.” – May Canady (Angela Bettis)
Humans are, by-and-large, social animals. For most of us, there is a need to belong and make connections with others. Unfortunately, not all of us possess the same tools to form these connections. When life continues sending signals that meaningful interaction with our peers isn’t worth the trouble, we may choose to live in isolation from others. Writer/director Lucky McKee presents, for our scrutiny, a twisted story about a very lonely, socially awkward young woman and her quest for the perfect mate.
May Canady (Angela Bettis) works as a veterinary assistant at Sarkizan Animal Hospital, along with her irascible boss (Ken Davitian) and amorous receptionist Polly (Anna Faris). She comes home to an empty apartment, where she sews her own clothes, and has conversations with her doll Suzy. One day, she becomes fixated on Adam (Jeremy Sisto), an auto mechanic (well, fixated on his hands, anyway). They embark on a relationship that could be described as tentative at best, but it doesn’t take long for May to scare Adam off. After she purposely cuts her thumb with a scalpel, May catches the attention of Polly (who seems to enjoy the act of self-mutilation), and they enjoy a brief fling. Things quickly turn sour, however, when Polly’s new squeeze, Ambrosia (Nichole Hiltz) threatens to displace May.
One of the prevailing themes of May is physical imperfection, and how we judge others based on appearance. The film suggests that May’s dysmorphic obsessions stem from her early childhood experience, as depicted in the opening scene. Young May (Chandler Riley Hecht) wears an eye patch to correct her amblyopia, and is ostracized by other kids at a birthday party. As an adult, she wears a special contact lens to improve her lazy eye, but physical imperfections continue to weigh heavily in her mind. She admires the curves of Polly’s neck, but she’s repelled by the prominent birthmark on her co-worker’s finger. May’s notions of idealized physical appearance carry over to her concept of relationships. When the people in May’s life fail to meet her idealized expectations (never mind the fact that May consistently misreads Adam and Polly’s social cues), she reaches an epiphany and transformation, as she embarks on a quest for physical perfection. As maladaptive and twisted as May’s coping mechanisms are, she gains a new assertiveness in her appearance and personality that was absent before. The less said, the better. Rest assured, it all adds up to a fabulously gory and profoundly disturbing, final scene.
How weird is too weird? Another theme the film explores is the acceptable boundary for eccentricity. As we learn, through May’s botched social interactions, it’s possible to be too left of center. May lacks the social filters to interpret what’s acceptable and what isn’t. In one cringe-worthy scene, she can’t take a hint that Adam is freaked out when she bites his lip during a failed attempt at lovemaking.* In another scene, she meets Blank (James Duval), an amiable guy at the bus stop with a mile-high punk ‘do. He follows her home, but almost immediately wishes he hadn’t. As odd as his appearance and demeanor seems to us, it’s evident his weirdness is only skin deep. Nothing he says or does can compare to what’s in May’s freezer.
* Fun Fact: According to McKee in his DVD commentary, this scene was derived from a similar, real-life experience in college.
As the title character, Angela Bettis encapsulates what it feels like to be awkward, and to miss the social cues that others take for granted. She sews her own patchwork clothes, trips over her own feet, and somehow always manages to say the wrong things at the wrong time. In an early scene, she attempts to use her feminine wiles (or at least her skewed interpretation of feminine wiles) to get Adam’s attention in a coffee house, while his nose is firmly planted in a book.* Instead of achieving the desired effect, he proceeds to fall asleep. She so desperately longs for contact, but it stays just out of grasp. Like Suzy, the doll she keeps enclosed in a glass case, she’s isolated from everyone else, entombed in her private world. As May’s sanity erodes, the sounds of cracking are accompanied by visible cracks on the glass to symbolize her increasingly fractured mind. May engages in a heated one-sided argument with the doll, which begs comparisons to Norman Bates in Psycho. Not unlike her cinematic soul mate Norman, May longs for human companionship, but she’s been off the grid for so long, she’s not quite sure how to go about it. She fails to understand the rules of human interaction – when she attempts to reach out and interact, it’s met with disastrous results.
* Fun Fact: McKee stated the book is Art of Darkness: The Cinema of Dario Argento (one of McKee’s inspirations).
Lucky McKee’s brilliant debut feature is one of the most unique horror films of the 2000s. It’s a nuanced portrait of mental illness, filled with touches of pitch-black humor and Grand Guignol flourishes. While May has managed to attract a small minority of fans, it remains largely unknown, and deserves to be discovered by a wider audience. Similarly, McKee remains one of horror’s best-kept secrets, with only a handful of films and a notable episode of the Masters of Horror television series on his resume. May, his best work to date, suggests he’s a formidable, albeit untapped talent to watch.