"See Me!"

by Alasdair Czyrnyj

May is a very sad movie.
I wanted to write about May, not only because I really liked it, but because it shares some of the same thematic concerns of a number of works I've reviewed for Ferretbrain in the past. If you like, you could think of Watamote, Excision, and May as a loose triptych of stories concerning socially maladjusted girls who try and fail to make the leap to adulthood. Despite being the oldest of the three (released in 2002), May could be considered the synthesis of the others, presenting a protagonist that combines Tomoko's insecurity and desire for acceptance with Pauline's aggression and blood fetishism. (It could also be argued, if you were a terrible person, that May is the worst-case scenario ending for Watamote.)

May begins with a brief prologue detailing two early episodes in the life of its protagonist, May Canady (played as a child by Chandler Riley Becht). The first episode occurs on her first day of school, when the patch to help her lazy left eye leads to her swift ostracism by her classmates. The second episode comes during her sixth (?) birthday, when she receives Suzie, a doll her mother made as a child. However, Suzie lives in a glass case, and according to Mama (Merle Kennedy), must never come out. (In general, May's mother comes across as the sort of woman who keeps child psychologists in the black.)

The movie proper begins two decades later. May, now played by Angela Bettis, has made it to adulthood, but it's not exactly a great adulthood. She's got a steady job as a veterinary assistant, she's got her own place, and she's taken up sewing as a hobby. However, all that does little to compensate for the fact that May is a very lonely person. She has no boyfriend, no girlfriend, no friends period. Even her parents seem to have disappeared. The only thing she talks to on a regular basis in her apartment filled with swatches and shelves of dolls is Suzie, still in her glass case, still watching.

But things are going to change for May, for she has met a boy. A boy named Adam (Jeremy Sisto). A wonderful, strong boy. A boy with the most beautiful hands...

From here, the film goes on to chronicle May's attempts to break out of her isolation and join the greater social world. The main focus is her relationship with Adam, a mechanic and failed film student with a taste for giallo and splatter horror. At the same time, Polly (Anna Farris), the ditzy vet receptionist, takes a particular shine to May that quickly escalates to attraction. There's also a plotline concerning May's effort to volunteer at a day care center for the blind, but it's more incidental than anything.

May is the type of movie that lives or dies by its lead. Thankfully, Angela Bettis is not only up for the task but excels as May. If for no other reason May should be watched for Bettis' performance. Physically she's perfect for the role, with a spindly body of all elbows, a beady-eyed stare, and a rictus of a smile. The costuming is also fantastic, with a nurse's dress that makes her look thirty years older to her homemade clothes that run the gamut from "DIY charm" to "previously worn by a man who screamed about Jesus on street corners." But beyond all that, Bettis manages to beautifully to capture the essence of someone who has missed out on a decade's worth of emotional development. The first time she sees Adam, she hides behind a telephone pole and peeks out at him, acting for all the world like a twelve-year-old girl in a twenty-eight-year-old woman's body. She twitches, stares, talks to herself, and constantly touches things people give her. The first time she makes out with Adam, she begins jerking her arms around robotically, having no idea what to do with them while she's kissing someone. However, while May is awkward and frail, she is not weak. Bettis imbues her with a quiet drive, a determination that bends and twists but never breaks, a need to see the world go the way she wants. She marches to the beat of her own drummer, and it is the tragedy of the film that her drummer marches her to a place far beyond where most of us would dare go.

Kim Newman, in his 2011 update of Nightmare Movies, his grand survey of the horror genre, described a certain type of film whose killers, rather than being charismatic Lecters, are small people who go quietly, terribly mad as they disconnect from society and plunge into isolated, hostile worlds of their own creation. May is a film very much in this vein (and so, for that matter, is Excision). While May attempts to reach out to others and establish relationships, those attempts all end in failure. Their failure gnaws at May, pushing her to become more distraught, more erratic, and even more isolated. Ultimately, they push her to kill.

The main force driving May away from other people is her "weirdness," her deviance from the norm in behavior and thought. A great deal of the film is concerned with the concept of "weirdness", of how people think about and react to others outside the norm. Both Adam and Polly consider themselves unusual, interesting people, and it is these qualities in May that they find attractive. When May confesses that she is weird, they both reply that "[they] like weird." The problem, however, is that their idea of "weirdness" is far different than May's. Adam, a die-hard Argento fan, loves himself a bit of gore and fancies himself a dark, dangerous fellow, and expects May to be shocked and enthralled by his theatrics. However, more often than not, this gangly, dorky young woman horrifies him, nonchalantly telling him work stories about dogs dragging their guts over picket fences or in critiquing the mechanics of cannibalism in his shitty student film. For Adam and Polly, "weirdness" is an affectation, a manner of personal tastes that ultimately don't affect who you are, For May, weird is something she is, something wound deep into the core of her being, something that not only distinguishes her from other people, but pushes her away from them. Adam and Polly like weird; May would like to stop being weird more than anything.

While the film places most of the onus for May's collapse on Adam and Polly, there is a case to be made for the persecution. May's love tends towards the obsessive and solipsistic, looking for a partner who will fulfill her needs above all else. Thanks to her insecurities regarding her body and the baleful influence of her mother, May's quest for romance involves the search for the perfect body, and she spends her time cataloging the bodies of others according to their aesthetic perfection, paying little heed to the person within. However, the film is very clearly on May's side, and the fact that she seems to be suffering from any number of personality disorders does obfuscate the matter of personal responsibility.

The film is definitely harder on Adam and Polly, but even here the film has a certain amount of sympathy for them. Their great crime is nothing more than being shallow shitty people, the sort you meet everywhere. While Adam is freaked out by May's behavior early in their relationship, he still pursues her, even to the point of having sex with her. When he finally discovers he can't deal with her behavior, he simply cuts her out of his life and ceases all contact with no explanation. As for Polly, she treats her relationship with May as a dalliance, an amusing little bit of sexual exploration with no strings attached, without any thought that May might see things differently. (One commenter I found suggested that Polly could be easily read as the sort of bored straight girl who takes up lesbianism the way other girls take up smoking.) While they are thoughtless and treat May shabbily, there is no sense that either of them are in any way deserving of what May does to them. If May was a "normal" person, Adam and Polly would become little more than anecdotes about some crummy people she knew to tell her fiancé.

The real issue, the one Adam and Polly never perceive, is that trying to become a "normal" person is a great risk for May. The etiolated life of hers we see at the beginning of the movie is not what most of us would call "happy," but it had its functions. The little nest of routine, sewing, and Suzie kept her safe, it kept her functional, and it kept her from feeling sad. However, mere routine was not enough, so she began to reach out, to try to join the adult world, only to be rejected. This is, quite literally, the worst possible outcome for May. To her, not only has she been barred from entering the greater forum of humanity, she can no longer retreat to her sanctum, for she has tasted the forbidden fruit of companionship and is now truly aware of how alone she is. Her life has become a deluge of fear and misery that drags her along to further humiliations and failures. In such a state, thinking "rationally" about things is no longer possible, and extreme solutions become not only possible, but desirable. A gradual solution, a slow integration into the world at large may have been possible for May, but such a solution would require people to love May and stay by her no matter what, to guide her to a better place. Sadly, neither Adam nor Polly are that person, and May's patience has run out. At this point, the only thing that matters is ending the pain now, no matter what.

Now May does have its flaws. It's a very low budget movie, though it generally manages to disguise the fact. Director Lucky McKee does have their actors, particularly Anna Faris, play their roles rather broad, and his symbolism has a tendency to clonk you over the head. When May walks through the neighborhood slaying most of the named cast, her actual kills tend to look more slashery-ridiculous than horrifying. However, Bettis' performance keeps the film centered and grounded, and even in those scenes she is powerful and terrible.

Bettis' real tour de force comes right at the end of the movie. In the end, May has disassembled her former lovers (and their lovers) and recombined them into "Amy," a giant rag doll made of meat and cloth, combining all the parts May loves, an agendered lover/parent/friend/other who will love May and never, ever leave her. And yet, and yet, despite all she's done, despite all she's suffered and how hard she has worked to create Amy...it doesn't work, and May knows it. Those scenes of May standing there, begging to this stinking doll-thing, pleading for it to love her, to save her from her loneliness...well, to be honest, it is the saddest thing I have ever seen in a movie. And then...

Well, I've spoiled a lot, but I won't spoil this. All I will say is that it is the perfect way to end this movie. It captures the horror and tragedy of May and her sad, lonely life.

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Comments (go to latest)
Melanie at 18:14 on 2014-12-26
The second episode comes during her sixth (?) birthday, when she receives Suzie, a doll her mother made as a child. However, Suzie lives in a glass case, and according to Mama (Merle Kennedy), must never come out.

...Loving parents don't give their kids haunted/cursed shit for their birthdays.
Michal at 21:54 on 2014-12-26
@Melanie: I dunno, these necropants my parents gave me yesterday are pretty comfortable.
Alasdair Czyrnyj at 23:55 on 2014-12-31
Well, this was a hell of a merry Christmas!

Loving parents don't give their kids haunted/cursed shit for their birthdays.

Ah, Suzie's just a regular doll. The only significance she has is that poor bloody May puts on her.

Come to think of it, regarding both May's mother and May herself, I think an old quote by C. S. Lewis explains their mindset ably; "In heaven, there is a state of being called love; in hell, we would recognize it as hunger."
Melanie at 05:30 on 2015-01-01
Ah, Suzie's just a regular doll. The only significance she has is that poor bloody May puts on her.

Oh, I gathered. But in a different movie... well.

I guess all I'm really saying is that it has all the hallmarks of having something horrible and supernatural going on with it, even if there isn't really.
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