Failing Well


Some movies are difficult to criticize. Yes, they’re bad, but they’re well-intentioned and made with a certain amount of skill and ambition. The filmmakers have given the audience credit for being intelligent and open, and viewers ought to re-pay the favor.

So it is with May, the low-budget solo debut from writer/director Lucky McKee that was recently released in theaters (briefly) and on DVD. The movie is an attempt at a character-driven horror movie, and for that alone it deserves to be seen and praised.

May (Angela Bettis) is a lonely young woman whose lazy eye forced her to wear an eye patch as a child. This, the movie suggests (not terribly convincingly), has severely retarded her social skills, so that her encounters with human beings in a social context — particularly horror-movie freak Adam (Jeremy Sisto) — are painfully awkward.

Adam is intrigued by May’s oddity, and they start dating. But May’s lack of social graces — she bites his lip during foreplay — frighten him a little, and he backs off. May, who thought Adam was perfect, runs into the arms of a slutty lesbian co-worker, only to get rejected by her, as well. May then begins stalking both her former lovers.

There’s much to like about May, at least in retrospect: its patience, its exploration of loneliness and imperfection, the way the script sets up and foreshadows the plot, a few haunting images, one excruciating suspense sequence, and its occasional moments of low-key humor.

Bettis’ performance is also a wonder. The character of May has some problems in its conception, but the actress (who is at this writing 28) plays it beautifully, inhabiting her both in her efficient veterinary-office competency and her social ineptness, her childlike naïveté and jealousy, her sexual hunger, and her rage. She’s too good for the movie.

The major problem with May is that McKee’s skills are too raw — as a writer, as a storyteller, as a stylist, and as a director of performers. The conceit and plot never quite cross over from interesting to credible. There are too many moments when the movie goes over-the-top, particularly in the performance (by Anna Faris) of the lesbian love interest and the cartoonish violence of the climax. And there’s a vagueness to all of the characterizations, which is particularly problematic with May and Adam. Nothing about them is unique or specific beyond what the plot requires, and Adam is so hesitant that he becomes tedious.

McKee also has a tendency to indulge himself against all logic. One of the movie’s most horrific scenes involves the aftermath of a struggle between May and some blind kids over her beloved doll, and the image is effective but makes no sense. It looks as if McKee envisioned the scene as a destination and created a subplot to get there.

Still, there’s something enormously appealing about May, and I’m sorry it’s not a better movie. McKee has some good ideas, and in the hands of a more mature filmmaker, it could have been something special. As it is, it’s an admirable failure.

A cautionary note: It’s best to go into May blindly, because the people who are marketing it on home video are hell-bent on ruining it. The trailer (not very well hidden) on the DVD is a travesty, revealing too much information and drawing attention to important dialogue that should lie dormant in the movie until its meaning becomes apparent as the climax. The tagline is clever enough but still gives away too much in the context of the other marketing.

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