Saturday, February 23, 2013
#151: May (Lucky McKee, 2002)
Since its modest theatrical release in 2002, Lucky McKee's first feature, May, has slowly and quietly built a fervent cult following that grew organically, in contrast to so many modern "cult" films that get that reputation bestowed on them almost immediately as a marketing-driven promotional gimmick rather than the word-of-mouth chain required for an actual cult. Writer/director McKee came to filmmaking in the same organic way. Born in a small California town to a poor family, McKee had little access to media as a child due to his family's dire economic circumstances. Given a hand-me-down camcorder by a relative at the age of ten, he fell in love with moviemaking after filming his sister's birthday party. Two years later, he and his classmates remade A Nightmare on Elm Street with McKee directing. I'd like to see that. This kind of backstory makes me want to like May a lot more than I do, but unfortunately I found the film lacking. I don't hate the film, and I see some promise in McKee (though I haven't seen any of his subsequent films yet), but I had too many problems with May to recommend it. In short, my feelings toward the film can be summed up by Moe Szyslak: "I'm a well-wisher, in that I don't wish you any specific harm."
May, says McKee, was his attempt to create a unique tone and feel by combining three very different inspirations: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Robert DeNiro's portrayal of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, and the songs of Nirvana. That sounds like a ridiculous undertaking, but in his own naive way, McKee sort of achieves a small-scale version of this goal. Faint mealymouthed praise, I know, but I don't hate the film. May has a teenage understanding of life and is not as serious as it thinks it is, but at least that teenage sensibility is awkwardly precocious and occasionally endearing. You can see some shy, brooding outcast obsessing over the book, film, and band that inspired May, scribbling the outline of this film in the back of a college-ruled notebook in the waning minutes of an Algebra II class.
May is about a young woman named (duh) May (Angela Bettis), who was born with a severely lazy eye and a selfish, monstrous mother. Other than these drawbacks, May seemed like a fairly centered person with a supportive father figure, but once we flash forward to the present, May's backstory is never brought up again, so we don't know how she turned into an immature, cripplingly shy, mentally unbalanced woman who thinks she can converse with the super creepy doll in a glass case given to her by her mother as a childhood birthday present. This is unfortunate, and the film either needed to expand this backstory or cut it entirely. This prologue sacrifices both mystery and coherent character development, giving us enough backstory to prevent us from creating our own but not enough to make us understand what happened to May. When she's not talking to her creepy doll, May works at an animal hospital with the fat guy who had the nude wrestling match with Borat (Ken Davitian) and a lesbian party girl Polly (Anna Faris), who has a crush on May. May is benignly stalking a crush of her own, Adam (Jeremy Sisto), a mechanic and amateur horror filmmaker. May is fond of both Adam and Polly, but she particularly loves his hands and her neck. If you're familiar with an obscure cultural reference I'm about to make, Frankenstein, you may know what happens later. May is incredibly lonely and hungry for connection, but when she is rejected, bad things happen to her head.
The actors, particularly Bettis, do a great job elevating some poorly written material. May could have been a perfect storm of mannered tics and quirks, but Bettis really convinces you she's a real person, despite some inconsistent character traits and all the freaking mannerisms she has to pull off. Faris is funny in a completely ridiculous part full of lipstick lesbian stereotypes and self-consciously "quirky" dialogue like "Maybe we can hang out, eat some melons" and "Shut up, hooker." Sisto's hair is a little too summer 1987 Tiger Beat, but he also pulls off a naturalistic performance. Gregg Araki regular and Donnie Darko rabbit James Duval gets a raw deal with his cameo. Dressed like an extra from Repo Man or the punk rock episode of Quincy, he has to utter such gems of the screenwriting craft as "Want to come with me and get some Jujubes?" and "Do you have some ice cubes I can rub on my nipples?" It's unclear whether this ridiculous dialogue is meant to be funny or not. Weird for the sake of weird is annoying, but if this is meant to be casual realism, McKee may be an accidental genius.
McKee as a director is fairly indistinct, at least at this early juncture in his career. The framing of shots is pretty standard network television-style boilerplate, but he's aided by some good cinematography that rises above the limited budget. His writing has a lot of room to improve, especially the scenes involving Bettis volunteering at a school for blind children. The last of these scenes is so atrociously conceived that it seriously damages the film. Bettis is good enough to keep the viewer, or at least me, emotionally invested in her character, but she has to behave in a lot of illogical, inconsistent ways in the film's final third. This film has plenty of avid fans and detractors. While I can't dismiss it entirely, I am mostly in the latter camp. Too bad. I really wanted to like it.