may_coverNear the end, May threatened to lose me. It went from a taut character piece to the land of the dumb slasher pic. Then May took off her Halloween costume, and with it her confidence. The film didn’t miss a step – I was the one who got sidetracked. It is quite good.

May (Angela Bettis) is a sick young woman. Isolated by a lazy eye and a dominant mother, her only friend is a doll behind a glass case. She is a veterinary assistant, and a loner who makes her own clothes. She falls in love with a beefy car mechanic/filmmaker who thinks he “likes weird.” More specifically, she has fallen in love with his hands.

Parts are important to May, and May. She compliments other people’s necks, hands, legs. She works with clothes, stitching to make something that will make her something. Her world is made up of bits and pieces – the construction of contact. If she can’t “find a friend,” says her mom, she should “make one” – advice that May takes to a grisly extreme. And when she makes a Halloween costume to look like her doll-friend, she is able to recreate herself.

Bettis puts May over the top. Her May is so unhappy that she approaches joy with rare sumptuousness. She loves the happy moments dearly, and we feel affection for her. So what if she talks to a doll? So what if she can’t hold a conversation? The few words she can manage are enough, since the smile on her face is so rewarding.

But May likes things that most people don’t (and this is key to the film’s effectiveness). Like Travis Bickle, she takes pleasure in strange activity. Whether she’s describing a botched surgery, or talking to the boy she likes, she has the same cute look, the same broad smile.

Due to the milieu of characters, May is more than a geek show. It’s a tragedy. May’s emotional life is a series of near misses. The guy who “likes weird” doesn’t like her amused reaction to his cannibal films: After she bites him and smears blood on her face, he takes off. Polly, a co-worker, likes to be cut a little, and starts a sexual relationship with May. But Polly uses “danger” and morbidity (something fundamental to May’s existence) as a turn-on. When you’re the real thing in a city filled with fake, life can get lonely. Even May’s best friend is locked behind a glass case, never to be touched.

The ending is tragic, poetic, or perfect. I won’t decide. What I wanted was the conclusion, and I got it. It follows May to her grim extremes, giving her the happy ending that only someone so damaged can have. That we still want it for May, after all we’ve seen her do, is a testament to Bettis’s performance, and to the skill and craftsmanship of Lucky McKee’s direction.

Some things don’t work: May at a school for the blind, a patient whose dog is missing a leg, some visual jokes that belong in a slasher pic. And I can only imagine that James Duval is there to remind us of all those bad Greg Arakki films. But forget that. May fulfills its ambitions. Few films of any genre can boast that.

About Kent Conrad

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