may

Premise: May Canady is an awkward, lonely and more than a little disturbed veterinary assistant and hobby seamstress. She’s developed infatuations with two people: Adam, an auto mechanic, and Polly, her libertinistic lesbian co-worker. When it turns out her crushes aren’t as perfect as she initially believes them to be, she sets out to find the perfect friend—with her starting point being her mother’s sage advice: “If you can’t find a friend, make one.”

In the early days of the 2000s, I found I had written off the modern horror movie. Disillusioned by the hype of The Blair Witch Project and Cabin Fever, and sick of the smug self-awareness that followed in the wake of Scream and its sequels, I found some difficulty in taking anything made after 1995 seriously. Still, I held out some hope. One day, I was at Hollywood Video trying to choose between three random horror movies I’d never heard of. May was one of them (the other two were Ginger Snaps and Wolves of Wall Street). I ended up loving May, and it reinvigorated my interest in modern horror.

May is perhaps the best-acted horror film in recent memory, with extraordinary performances coming from the three lead actors: Angela Bettis (as May), Jeremy Sisto (Adam) and Anna Faris (Polly). It would be incredibly easy for the three roles to be played as stereotypes (especially Polly), but none of the actors take the easy route. Bettis takes a character who is essentially an unstable, eccentric psycho and turns her into a genuinely sympathetic and endearing character. (She puts in a striking physical performance as well, displaying May’s awkwardness through her mannerisms, particularly her hand gestures.)

Faris in particular is a revelation: Polly is definitely the shallowest role, and the temptation had to be there to constantly go over the top, but Faris consistently displays a certain amount of restraint. (Not too much, though. There’s only a limited number of ways one can deliver “Do you like pussy?” as a double entendre.) It’s a goddamn shame that the majority of Faris’s roles have been in horseshit such as Waiting… and the Scary Movie franchise.

Sisto has perhaps the most difficult job, playing an audience identification character who nonetheless has a tendency to behave a bit unsympathetically. As much we, the audience, want to like May, he’s well within his rights to become frustrated with some of her obsessive behavior. (If you don’t think so, try dating someone who has a couple of May’s more extreme personality traits.) To the credit of both Sisto and writer/director Lucky McKee, we’re never expected to absolve Adam of guilt for trying to score with May while he’s clearly in a relationship with someone else. And yet…we understand why May likes Adam so much (it’s not just because he’s extremely good-looking), and we don’t lose respect for her when she keeps going back to him (the way we do with, say, Justine in Tormented).

While Bettis, Sisto and Faris dominate the film, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the many memorable supporting performances, particularly by James Duval (Frank in Donnie Darko) as a ridiculously-coiffed punk-rock horndog and Ken Davitan (Borat’s producer in, um, Borat) as May’s boss, a vet with an impenetrable eastern European accent.

The cast are helped immeasurably by the characterization. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film that so perfectly captured what it’s like to be young, socially awkward, and infatuated with someone. Many—Hell, probably most—of us, at some point in our lives, have behaved much as May does in the first half of the film; when we laugh at May for being awkward and lacking confidence, we’re really laughing at ourselves. The only thing keeping May from being the definitive teen-angst film is the fact that most of the characters are clearly in their twenties. The dialogue is great, too, with a quotable moment coming roughly every three to six minutes. (“I throw the stick and…nothing!” “Fecosam on the miskitay?” “Gams, stems, wheels, whatever.”)

The plotting might be the weakest aspect of May. I didn’t have a problem with it, but it’s a common criticism that it takes too long to shift from a black comedy to a horror movie; it’s certainly true that the vast majority of the violence is packed into the final half-hour of the film, and a number of people have expressed impatience with having to wait to get to “the good stuff.” Personally, I think this is necessary for us to get to know the characters better. (It seems this criticism seems to come mostly from people who apparently believe May is supposed to be a slasher movie, which is kind of like criticizing the science in Star Wars.) I also admire the film’s structure: while it’s clear that none of this is going to end well, it’s not the sort of film where you can see every plot shift coming ten minutes beforehand (the ending is a genuine twist—even with a bit of foreshadowing, you’ll not see it coming without spoilers). People who feel the need to constantly predict coming events might feel a bit frustrated.

Anyway, I’ve gushed long enough—I haven’t even got the time to praise McKee’s direction (he’s got a great eye, even if the “blood-and-milk” shot was probably cribbed from Ginger Snaps), or the editing (by Rian Johnson, who went on to direct Brick and episodes of Breaking Bad and Terriers), or any of the thousand other wonderful things about the production.

The really sad thing about May is that it really should have become a true cult classic, and it doesn’t seem to have. It’s more obscure than it deserves to be (it certainly never seems to get mentioned in Anna Faris’s interviews). There’s no justice in a world where self-indulgent wankery such as Zombieland and Donnie Darko gets more attention than this gem. So, while I tend to dislike ending reviews by saying something to the extent of “watch this movie,” this time, I pretty much have to. It deserves it.

Moment of Zen: Seymour’s story (“A couple of weeks ago, an old man comes in, and says his dog is dying, and he begs us to save it…”).

93 minutes. Directed by Lucky McKee. Starring Angela Bettis, Jeremy Sisto, Anna Faris.

MAY poster.

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