May opens with a scream, and a pair of scissors rammed into an eye socket. It continues with an opening montage of rapidly descending doll parts, which, as any Courtney Love fan can tell you, are inherently frightening yet simultaneously symbolic of fragility, or something. In between severed plastic limbs, we meet the kindergarten-aged May Canady (Chandler Hecht), burdened with an overprotective mother and a lazy eye that requires the donning of a "pirate patch." We also meet May's best friend, a creepy white doll named Suzy displayed in an antique glass case. "If you can't find a friend, make one," suggests Mom. Not that she seems interested in actually helping May out in the finding department.
We've seen scary dolls and scissor wounds before, and have some idea what to expect in films that feature them, but May doesn't go the expected route for quite a while. Instead, we settle into the darkly comedic, mildly touching groove of the day-to-day life of May, now grown up and played by Angela Bettis, still burdened with a lazy eye but holding down a successful job as a veterinarian's assistant. It's never clear what happened to her parents; given their complete absence, it seems safe to assume they died.
To the strains of the Breeders and the Kelley Deal 6000, May meets Adam (Jeremy Sisto, channeling a young John Travolta), an auto mechanic with filmic aspirations. It's not your average courtship -- she effectively introduces herself by rubbing her face in his hands as he's taking a nap on lunch break, and he moves things along by teaching her how to smoke.
Goth poseurs lured to May by the poster may not quite realize that the joke's on them, a bit, as Adam is one of those ersatz "dark" characters who decorates his room with "disturbing" art, idolizes Italian horrormeister Dario Argento, and makes splatter movies for his student projects ("I like weird" is his mantra). Yet he's a phony; when confronted with someone truly weird, he freaks out and can't deal with it at all.
Meanwhile, May is being actively courted from another angle. Promiscuous lesbian Polly (Scary Movie star Anna Faris, in a genuinely scary role) seems to see her shy, lazy-eyed co-worker as a challenge. When she asks May to take care of her cat, it's very explicitly not the only "pussy," as she puts it, she's looking to share. May isn't the quickest with double entendres, but eventually she figures it out. Back home, however, Suzy the freaky doll is getting jealous . . .
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Writer-director Lucky McKee's strength is that he's grounded the horror of his tale in real contemporary fears. In the same way that, say, Godzilla exploited nuclear terror, Village of the Damned exploited parental insecurities and, more recently, The Ring exploited fears of children watching psychologically damaging material unsupervised, May exploits the insecurities of the urban dating scene. Less significant than nukes and crazy kids? Sure. But fear of rejection is still a mighty powerful thing, especially in a superficial town like Los Angeles (the setting for May), where a single person on the prowl can be rejected out of hand for the smallest flaw in physical appearance. May not only proposes that it's the imperfections that make one beautiful, but it also mercilessly skewers the dating cliché of the person who says they want to meet someone different, yet rejects anyone who actually is.
Augmenting the tale is the film's stunning production design by Leslie Keel, reminiscent of the best of the Dario Argento canon, albeit on a small budget (and suggesting there's at least a bit of McKee in the character of Adam). Yet the strongest work of all comes from Bettis' lead performance. Mostly known for small roles as the token crazy girl in films like Girl, Interrupted and Bless the Child, Bettis here delivers acting work that ranks among the year's finest, effortlessly conveying a cracked vulnerability that ultimately and drastically transitions into something else entirely. All this while saddled with a grotesque contact lens. It'd be interesting to see if she could play a normal, well-adjusted type, but on the other hand, how much fun would that be?
McKee, who appears twice in a gratuitous cameo, has come a quantum leap forward from his first film, the amateurish goof All Cheerleaders Die, which he co-directed with May editor Chris Sivertson. May feels like the work of someone 10 years older, though in fairness it features a level of sophistication the former film never aspired to.
By the film's last third, the horror movie element truly kicks in, and the final moments are a real stunner. If you've ever seen yourself as a lost misfit adrift in a callous world without anyone who truly understands you, and don't consider such to be a "phase" one "grows out of," then this blood's for you.