May. 2002. Directed & Written by Lucky McKee.
Starring Angela Bettis, Jeremy Sisto, Anna Faris, James Duval, Nichole Hiltz, Kevin Gage, Merle Kennedy, Chandler Riley Hecht, Rachel David, & Nora Zehetner. 2 Loop Films/A Loopy Production LLC.
Rated 18A. 93 minutes.
As a staunch Mary Shelley fan, I’m always happy to see different versions of Frankenstein come to the screen. They can sometimes be terribly adapted. Others times, they’re spectacular. While Lucky McKee’s May isn’t exactly a Frankenstein adaptation truly, it runs along certain thematic veins similar to Shelley.
Only instead of man playing God, this time it’s woman. And not only is it a woman, it is one terribly twisted woman. The character played by Angela Bettis is allowed to be every bit as creepy, disturbing, and weird as any male character who’d be placed in this role. Subverting the typical expectations we have coming to a movie touted as a female Frankenstein, McKee does a nice job of modernizing the classic tale of human beings trying to play God, creating life where there was none. This version sees a young woman become a self-styled Dr. Victoria Frankenstein when she can’t find anybody with whom to connect, either in friendship or in love. Thematically, this is one powerful movie. McKee wraps that power in a macabre, darkly comedic, and at times brutal film.
May Dove Canady (Angela Bettis) had it rough throughout most of life. Her mother (Merle Kennedy) and father (Kevin Gage) clearly didn’t care much for each other, plus Mama Canady was awful hard on her lonely little daughter. May goes through life with a lazy eye that throws her appearance off to others. Her entire life it’s been a curse. Unable to make friends at an early age, Mama gives her daughter the first doll she ever made, encased in a glass box.
However, the doll renders her a lonely, strange young woman growing up in the world. She works at a vet, slightly befriending the ditsy receptionist Polly (Anna Faris) and working alongside the hard-to-translate doctor doing surgeries. Then one day, she casually meets a young man her age named Adam Stubbs (Jeremy Sisto). Her fascination with his hands begins an obsession in her. When her weirdness drives Adam away before a real relationship can begin, May develops near psychosis.
She falls fast into a world where the only option left is to make a friend, as not even the doll at home can serve that purpose any longer. May will go to any length to figure out a way she can put together all the pieces of the people who’ve abandoned her love to make one whole person.
One huge aspect of the film I love is the cinematography, together with McKee’s direction. Director of Photography Steve Yedlin is a talent, whose work I’ve admired since the haunting Civil War-era Dead Birds in 2004. He’s also done a few other great films, such as Rian Johnson’s Brick and Looper, among some others; plus he’s doing cinematography duties on Johnson’s upcoming Star Wars: Episode VIII. Yedlin captures everything with such great lighting, so there are a few nice exterior scenes, but mainly the dark and shadowy look of May’s apartment, her room, as well as some of the other interior locations, they all feel so spooky. That’s part of why I love this movie. There’s a juxtaposition of the light and funny with this creepy, dark undercurrent running beneath the whole story. So we get the dark comedy, a lot of it, and with Yedlin’s wonderfully shadowy frames there is a neat, weird tone. Atmosphere is a huge part of why May is a solid film.
The script from McKee is a blast. I can’t help but feel there’s something more I wanted. Yet that being said, there isn’t anything wrong with it. His screenplay reads like one of the most awkward romantic comedies at times, in the best sort of way. Between his writing and the talented execution of the role by Angela Bettis (a queen of indie film if there ever were one), May becomes a living, breathing human being, and a strange one at that. The eeriness of her character is evident. Although, it’s her pain I’m most interested in. And this is where McKee carves out his own territory by moving away from a straight-up modern retelling of Mary Shelley. His story takes on the framing device of loneliness and pain, in that May becomes a Dr. Frankenstein-like figure through the lens of a girl whose whole life has been marred by utter isolation and the feeling of being an outsider. The ultimate act by May near the end (which we actually see right at the beginning) makes it incredibly clear that May is willing to give up pieces of herself for a real friendship, a real relationship with another living being. The whole plot and story of May is loaded with emotions, it’s hard not to read more into it than simply saying McKee made a gruesome horror about a crazy woman.
Both Bettis and Jeremy Sisto are excellent here. Their awkward and tense moments together are so perfect because of the talent they bring. Sisto has this slacker charm about him here, which makes him sort of puppy dog-ish. At the same time he’s weird, too. Not as weird as May. But weird. It’s almost painful to watch him have to treat May the way he does. Honestly, though, can many people say they’d be real delicate with somebody like her? I’m not sure about that, I’d probably just take off running and screaming. So we live vicariously through Sisto’s Adam character, and we feel the attraction mixed with a later repulsion that he’s feeling. Part of his performance reels us into his emotional perspective.
But Bettis is the star. Her anger and her psychosis come out loudly maybe only once or twice, of course while May is alone. For the rest of the film, Bettis plays a subtle, lonely, quiet woman whose nature is to stay withdrawn and away from everyone and everything around her. I love how curious May seems with Bettis in the role, she’s like a grown woman stuck in the psychological mind state of a child, but not in some immature way. She is generally fascinated with the world; for instance, when she develops a curiousity about the blind kids, it isn’t only because of her eye issues – she asks why they’re touching everything, as if not knowing blind people existed. So there’s that child-like enthusiasm to May, which clashes hard against the aggressive and fragile psyche she displays later. These two elements make for a dreadfully wonderful performance out of Bettis, totally unforgettable in all its disturbed glory.
A 4&1/2 star film, one top notch horror from the early 2000’s. I sometimes forget this McKee flick is so damn excellent. Then I get the DVD out, pop it in, and quickly remember. Everything in this film is hypnotizing. Bettis’ anchors everything with her macabre performance with Sisto pulling his weight alongside. Nice shadowy cinematography combined with McKee’s directorial style makes May one of those horrors I can never shake from my mind. And if you feel uncomfortable about eyeballs, is this ever not the one for you.