Here is a film designed to make you pay attention. It wants you to notice itself with its off-kilter premise and its handling of repulsive material and its numerous winking name-checks to Dario Argento. It wants you to notice director Lucky McKee, the improbably named guy making his relatively-big-name debut after codirecting a homegrown effort nobody saw called "All Cheerleaders Die". And most of all, it wants you to notice Angela Bettis, the actress playing the title character. I'll be damned if it doesn't work like a charm.
May is a young woman who works at a veterinary clinic and suffers from serious social anxiety. (How serious? She makes Barry Egan look like Barry White.) Her experiences growing up with a lazy eye has led to her prize the parts as well as the whole, and as the film begins she thinks she may have found the perfect guy. He's cute, he's mysterious, he's got gorgeous hands. And he says he "likes weird". Should be a match made in heaven, but then this is a horror film and not some crap with Meg Ryan. Things will end badly. It's exactly that expectation of dark happenings that makes the film hum like it does. For the first half, it appears that this may be another entry in the Lonely Misfit Struggling to Connect genre (a personal favorite genre, by the way). But there's weird undercurrents running through the proceedings, like May's evident glee at relating a sick story about a dog with a twisted bowel, that post the way for the uncompromising climax. Suffice to say I don't want to totally ruin everything, but what I said about parts? Let your mind wander.
"May" has balls in letting May ride the edge between sympathetic and off-putting, and that the character doesn't teeter off into the bowels of the latter is a credit to the outstanding performance by Ms. Bettis. With a face that resembles Holly Hunter re-imagined as a cadaver and a right eye that yearns to roll down and look at her nose, May isn't exactly the most attractive girl, but there's something oddly pretty about her anyway -- a certain hopeful air that often gets choked off in her social paralysis but will occasionally manifest in a smile or an eye's twinkle or a strangely poetic turn of phrase. Bettis takes all this and constructs a captivating portrait of a sad girl who wants to relate to others but doesn't know how. (Her makeout session with Adam, her "perfect" guy, after viewing his student film has a hypnotic inevitability about it.) She's supported by a sparse but effective supporting cast; Jeremy Sisto scores as Adam, who finds himself intrigued but not willing to follow May's darker impulses, while Anna Faris steals scenes as a lesbian coworker with whom May has an ill-fated flirtation. (At this point, I am now willing to watch Anna Faris in anything.) McKee's script, too, keeps things grounded by refusing to betray or shortchange these characters even when things turn grim.
To say that the bloody denoument is a given is to take nothing away from the film. But at the same time, I do have to register a slight complaint. As effective as the last minutes of the film are -- and effective they are indeed, with Bettis becoming stone-cold scary and McKee shifting his direction into hyper-style mode (it's here that his hand feels most Argento-esque) -- it's still a comedown from the previous material. The problem is that McKee's script is so impressive and empathetic in detailing May's clumsy attempts to make friends that the gore almost feels somewhat obligatory. But this criticism should be taken for what it is -- the nitpicking and kvetching of a genre freak who's seen one too many disappointments lately. On the inside, I'm jumping for joy. "May", for all its problems, is not nearly a disappointment -- it's a triumph.