At the beginning of the macabre psychological chiller "May," a crazy young mother places a black patch over her little daughter's lazy eye and sends her off to school, saying that she should cover the patch with her long hair or otherwise none of the kids will like her. Little May learns swiftly that either way, the patch exposed or hidden, she faces rejection.
A few more quick scenes suggest the suffocating protectiveness of the mother, who makes a spooky doll with a Kabuki-like white face -- enclosing it in a glass case that is never to be opened -- as a companion for the lonely May. By the time she grows up and has a place of her own and a job as an assistant to a decidedly haphazard veterinarian, May (Angela Bettis) is desperately lonely, a birdlike creature with an understandably weird aura. When she discovers that a certain kind of contact lens can correct her lazy eye she is ecstatic, for a young man (Jeremy Sisto) in the neighborhood has attracted her attention. She is pretty and intelligent, and decides she is now equipped to pursue him.
With pitch-dark humor, writer-director Lucky McKee reveals just how extreme the reaction to life's injustices can be in an individual as fragile as May, who places all her hopes for love and happiness on the success of her corrective contact lens. "May" unfolds with the creepy elegance and carefully calibrated precision of a Dario Argento horror film. It is a stylized work of unflinching control and discipline, reflecting an artistic maturity unusual in a first film. McKee worked closely with cinematographer Steve Yedlin and production designer Leslie Keel to create the film's crucial look and feel, which at once places May physically in everyday life yet shows she is actually living in a world of her own. Like McKee, Yedlin and Keel are USC film school alums; so are the film's co-producer, Marius Balchunas, and composer, Jaye Barnes-Luckett, whose mood-enhancing score is plaintive and unsettling.
McKee places extraordinary demands on Bettis, who proves to be as rigorous and imaginative as her director: Her May is at once vulnerable, outrageous and dangerous.
The film is shot through with subversive humor. Sisto and Anna Faris, who plays the veterinarian's nonchalant, seductive receptionist, and James Duval, cast as an ill-fated punk-Goth type, understand this as well as Bettis does, with each playing against McKee's bleakly bizarre comic sensibility. "May" has been described as a tribute to "Frankenstein," but it also recalls Herschell Gordon Lewis' notorious "Blood Feast" -- except that McKee wisely trusts us to complete the film's horrors in our imagination.
MPAA rating: R, for strong violence/gore, some sexuality and language.
Times guidelines: Unsuitable for younger audiences.
A Lions Gate Films presentation. Writer-director Lucky McKee. Producers Marius Balchunas, Scott Sturgeon. Executive producers Eric Koskin, John Veague. Cinematographer Steve Yedlin. Editors Debra Goldfield, Rian Johnson, Chris Sivertson. Music Jaye Barnes-Luckett. Costumes Marcelo Pequeno, Mariano Diaz. Special effects makeup Randy Westgate, Eva Lohse. Production designer Leslie Keel. Art director Charlie Gonzalez. Set decorator Lorri Jakubuv. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.
Exclusively at the Beverly Center Cineplex, Beverly Boulevard at La Cienega Boulevard, (310) 652-7760.