Writer and director Lucky McKee’s 2002 debut movie, May, is the definition of a cult classic. It’s a strange, sad psychological horror movie that follows no rules of any subgenre in which it may fit. Part social outcast story, part slasher, part character study – and yet none of these things. At the time of its release, May made barely a ripple in theatres. Like most cult classics, however, McKee’s freshman effort later found audiences on home video.
May Canady has always had trouble fitting in. Thanks to a lazy eye, school children avoided and teased her. During her childhood, May’s only friend was a Suzie – a doll made by her mother – sealed in protective glass case. “If you can’t find a friend, make one”, her mother always said. Now May is an adult and desperate to connect with the world around her. With new contact lens that correct her lazy eye, May makes friends with a co-worker, Polly, and even meets a boy, Adam. But her socially awkward nature and odd fixation with particular body parts threaten to push people away.
May Eschews Familiarity to Piece Together Its Own Sad Story
From Carrie to Christine, the social outcast narrative is a popular one in horror. It’s a theme that’s been re-tread in any number of bloody revenge movies over the years. Fortunately, McKee subverts all expectations with his quiet, restrained effort. Though May initially feels like it will follow a similar narrative path as movies like Maniac, The Driller Killer, or Pieces, McKee continuously steers his story in a different direction. That is, May is a more melancholy, tragic effort that is less concerned with visceral gore as shock effect. In contrast, McKee wrings out most of the movie’s tension from the title character’s painful attempts to build relationships. When May approaches her “dream man” while he sleeps and takes his hand to her face, it’s almost agonizing as you wait for the inevitable to follow.
…McKee’s final act delivers a satisfying combination of dark, morbid humour and shocking horror.
Though McKee paces May’s psychological horror quite well, one downside is the lack of insight into the title character. Outside of a brief glimpse into her childhood, McKee keeps his movie grounded in the present. Much is left to the viewer’s imagination, which in and of itself isn’t a bad thing normally. And it’s refreshing that McKee avoids the tired Freudian tropes often found in Grindhouse thrillers. Still the movie requires a bit of a leap of faith to accept the extent of May’s stunted emotional growth. Fortunately, McKee’s final act delivers a satisfying combination of dark, morbid humour and shocking horror.
Angela Bettis’ Quirky, Heart-Breaking Performance Makes May Work
As the title character, Angela Bettis’ performance is the perfect blend of awkward, eccentric, and sympathetic. On the one hand, it’s Bettis’ ability to channel that painful social clumsiness of the outcast that produces much of the movie’s cringe-worthy moments. May isn’t a movie that relies on jumps and, only occasionally, turns to gore. But watching May navigating normal interactions and relationships provides its own form of painful suspense. What’s most impressive about Bettis and her performance is how she layers it. Despite the character’s peculiarities and increasing instability, Bettis ensures “May” is still relatable. And May’s transformation from reclusive and vulnerable to strong feels believable courtesy of Bettis.
…Bettis ensures “May” is still relatable.
In the supporting cast, the always wonderful Anna Faris adds some additional fun quirks as May’s air-headed co-worker, Polly. Faris adds some eccentric levity to her scenes, while never crossing over into cartoonish. That is, Faris’ strange attraction to and friendship with May feels believable. As the object of May’s affection, Jeremy Sisto (Wrong Turn) works extremely well with Bettis. McKee’s screenplay certainly helps – “Adam” is surprisingly layered. And Sisto does the material justice, convincing as a somewhat quirky character himself who alternately feels sorry for and repulsed by May.
May a Deserving Cult Classic of Heart-Breaking Psychological Horror
Nearly 20 years after its release, May as aged well into cult movie status. Darkly humorous and hauntingly heart-breaking, McKee accomplishes the difficult task of making his eccentric title character sympathetic to audiences. In spite of the extremes May takes to “make friends”, there’s something extremely relatable about her loneliness. In a world today where you can have hundreds of “friends” and still be disconnected, May is arguably more relevant now than when it was released.