Girl Meets Context: Self-described feminist filmmaker Lucky McKee’s first solo-directed feature film (he co-directed the low-budget 1999 zombie film All Cheerleaders Die) has become enshrined as a cult classic and rapturously reviewed by the film press (including renowned horror-hater Roger Ebert who called it “a horror film and something more and deeper, something disturbing and oddly moving”). Featuring a star-making turn by Angela Bettis as the title character, May is about an emotionally-unbalanced veterinary technician who becomes obsessed with a hipster film student named Adam (played by Six Feet Under alum Jeremy Sisto). May has grown up “different” with a lazy eye and an overbearing mother who forced a glass-encased doll named Suzie on May at a young age. Now that she’s a grown woman, May has developed a bizarre relationship with Suzie, dissociating from reality by talking to Suzie as if she were real. As May begins to court Adam, strange violent impulses come out that scare him off, leading May to dalliances with an airheaded lesbian co-worker, Polly (Anna Faris of the Scary Movie franchise). As May faces rejection from both Adam and Polly, she goes on a violent killing spree that culminates in a bizarre and hallucinatory ending. Kristine and I talked about the film’s relationship to 1990s subculture, the basic Frankenstein plot and gender politics. Be forewarned, our discussion will include massive SPOILERS, so go watch the movie and come back!
Sean: Did you love May?
Kristine: I did! I thought it was great, very smart and funny. And I thought the performances, especially Angela Bettis’ as May, were fantastic. I liked that it was a “small” movie in scope but had this totally riveting lead performance anchoring the movie. What about you?
Sean: Yes! Angela Bettis rocks. I totally agree.
Kristine: She does! All that simpering, shaking and quivering? Amazing.
Sean: It’s pretty amazing how Bettis is able to sell all of that without being annoying or grating to watch. At least, for me. I find her totally riveting, and I think it would have been very easy for this movie to go flying off the rails with the wrong actress in that role. May could so easily be unbearable to spend time with. But Bettis is so damned magnetic – and she plays so many of the scenes wonderfully. She is able to play Lucille Ball-style physical comedy, like that moment in the café when she is lingering by the cream and sugar bar trying to catch Adam’s attention and it is hilarious. She’s also capable of being fucking creepy as hell, like that amazing monologue she gives about the dog that bursts its stitches. And even though she spends most of the movie in “mousy” mode, Bettis sells every moment when May has to suddenly exhibit strength and intensity. And I thought Jeremy Sisto as Adam, the object of May’s affections, was superfine even with his long, mopey hair. I never liked him as Billy on Six Feet Under and find him much more attractive in his current iteration on that lame sitcom Suburgatory (where he is older, beefier, with short hair). But he is smolderingly hot in May.
Kristine: Sisto is great and I love the movie’s conception of Adam as the indie guy who realizes he’s not as freaky as he thought he was. I saw the whole movie as an indictment of a specific cultural trend to co-opt freak culture and push the idea that freaks are “cute” and lovable. It reminds me of two quotes: one from John Waters who talks (I am paraphrasing) about how mainstream culture conceives of drag queens as these lovable and docile creatures, when in reality a good drag queen should be scary as fuck!
Sean: Long live Sharon Needles.
Kristine: The other quote is something a Facebook friend said about men who claim they are into dating “exotic” women when they mean, like, 90-pound Asian women. She said, “You wanna say you date exotic types? Then ask Precious out for a date!”
Sean: The turnaround of Adam thinking May will be sooooo weirded out by his dumb movie, but then she is totally into it and chows down on his face is amazing.
Kristine: I know! I loved when they are watching the movie and he is looking at her out of the side of his eye and smirking, thinking she will be traumatized. He is looking forward to scandalizing her, but she is un-scandalize-able. Remember she says, “Nothing freaks me out.” Well, she totally means it, and I think he is intimidated and irritated by that. I know we’re meant to think Adam loses interest in May mostly just because she draws blood during their encounter, but I also think there are deeper ideological reasons related to gender. I know he likes it when she tells her gory stories about her work at the vet clinic, but I think when he truly realizes that she is distinctly unfeminine in her propensity for violence and gore he is turned off by that. And I thought it was funny that Lucky McKee conceived of Adam a douchey film school student, which felt like a self-referential joke that worked for me.
Sean: To go back to your previous point about the John Waters quote, I totally see Lucky McKee as someone trying to pick up where John Waters left off, or at least someone who is working in his spirit. The character of May is a very John Waters kind of protagonist, and the movie skirts the line of taste several times, especially in regards to the blind children.
Kristine: What about that Precious quote?! Don’t you think it is funny and TRUE????
Sean: I guess… That’s a hetero dilemma.
Kristine: I HATE men who are all, “I like punk girls” but they mean girls who wear fishnets and dye their hair blue, not girls who are truly anarchic and want to shit on your head.
Sean: Ha! Plus, hasn’t Hollywood taught us that 90-lbs Asian girls always turn out to be crazy bitches?
Kristine: This is true… as evidenced by The Social Network.
Sean: Do you think John Waters likes this movie?
Sean: I feel like a detractor of this movie would accuse it of being twee hipster bullshit with all of the Breeders songs on the soundtrack. And all May’s cute pigtails and librarian sweaters.
Kristine: No, that was all satire of that culture!
Sean: Also, doll parts.
Kristine: Well, okay, the doll parts did make me want to die.
Kristine: “I am… / Doll parts… / Doll skin… / Doll heart…” When did this movie come out?
Kristine: Okay, that is a little late for doll parts.
Sean: I thought of Jill from Hardware when the opening credits had like, all the baby doll arms and legs falling through space in slow motion.
Kristine: SO DID I. The opening credits were ridic!
Sean: But Hardware took Jill’s burned baby doll art so totally seriously, whereas I think May is nudging and winking about the infantilization that’s such a part of riot grrrl culture.
Kristine: Oh, absolutely!!!
Sean: Jill is Kat Bjelland in 1992, staring at herself in a mirror, thinking deep thoughts. May is the person dressing up as Kat Bjelland for Halloween in 2002, totally in on the joke. Can I just take this opportunity to say, I never really cottoned to riot grrl’s appropriation of baby doll dresses and pig-tails and Strawberry Shortcake lunch boxes. In fact, I might go so far as to point to the 1990s and the grunge/riot grrrl movements as the beginning of the mainstreaming of kid culture. It suddenly became cool to be 23, but dress like you’re 11.
Kristine: Right. And I do think May tries to have it both ways. It does fetishize her ladycrafts patchwork homemade outfits, but it also is using her to poke fun at all that. But I think the movie works overall, as a lampoon overall of exactly what you’re talking about. The ‘90s created a generation of Adams and Blanks and Pollys who like to think the Mays of the world are oh-so-cute and oh-so-cool, until shit gets real and then they can’t handle it. They’re a supremely over-aestheticized culture – in fact all they’re about is aesthetics. This is a movie where the true freak slaughters all the poseurs and makes a patchwork-freak out of their bodies (the only way they could ever be authentically freaky anyway is to die and be partially absorbed into something actually weird). Though it is perhaps ironic that their bodies are sewn into this weird aesthetic object that just lies there looking wrong (until May animates it).
Sean: Speaking of the authentically weird, let’s discuss Suzie! I had totally forgotten about the big role she plays in the movie, like that crazy scene of all the blind kids crawling over the broken glass.
Kristine: The blind kids scene was BATSHIT INSANITY!
Sean: I love when Adam was leaving the apartment and he hears May yell “I told you to FACE THE GODDAMN WALL!” at Suzie.
Kristine: I LOVE THAT TOO!!! I thought it was interesting that May’s “freakiness” seemed to always be a part of her personality, but her true craziness was an inheritance passed down to her by a mother whom strived to look aggressively normal. I mean, her mom was a total Betty Draper situation. So I like the subtext that the “normal” people are the ones truly grappling with intense neurosis, and they pass that on to their children and it becomes a pathology. I don’t think the movie is saying that weird girls are necessarily insane degenerates, but then when an unconventional girl is under the laser-beam intensity of the pressure to be normal, that’s when she snaps or becomes “ill.” Suzie may be a lazy metaphor (the “perfect” image of the feminine encased in glass and staring all hollow-eyed out from her prison) but I still thought the overall idea worked. It was good that we didn’t see like, scenes of May being bullied as a child. It keeps the focus on May’s mother’s passing Suzie down to her daughter being the uncanny moment in the movie.
Sean: When I first saw this movie, I kept waiting for Suzie to come to life, but she never did.
Kristine: Oh, I didn’t think she would come to life. I saw Suzie more as a totemic object or fetish of a certain kind of femininity, with the red hair and style of dress. She’s antiquated and iconic.
Sean: I like the idea that Suzie is some idealized version of “the perfect girl.” It accounts for May’s quirky obsession with individual signs of “perfection” in others (Adam’s hands, Polly’s neck, Blank’s Frankenstein tattoo, etc.) I mean, we can trace all that back to May’s own insecurity about her lazy eye (which she, significantly, digs out of her head at the end of the movie and thus animates her golem). I think the movie tries a little bit too hard to make May fixate on those things, like all of her staring at Adam’s hands. But once the movie becomes this bloody grand guignol in the last half-hour, it all pays off.
Kristine: I loved the early scenes between Adam and May, when it seemed like there was going to be some She’s All That makeover and romance. And then it all goes to glorious hell! Did you feel sympathy for Adam?
Sean: I wanted to tear his clothes off, but no I didn’t feel sympathy for him. But I also didn’t hate him.
Kristine: Me, neither.
Sean: The movie does a good job of making him three-dimensional. I think it would be a much stupider movie if he was a cartoonish cad. But he is just kind of this dude, and we can easily sympathize with how he sees May and also with how she sees him. The movie is the better for blurring our sense of identification between those two characters throughout the movie though, thankfully, we wind up with May in the end.
Kristine: What about Polly, the Anna Faris character? Or her RIDIC girlfriend AMBROSIA!!??
Sean: I think Polly is the most problematic character in the movie.
Kristine: She is!
Sean: I almost feel like she is a borderline dyke-minstrel character.
Kristine: I agree 1,000%! When she says, “She’s just a piece of ass I can’t pass up”? Or how about when she tells May, “You’re my main mama.” I DIED at that dialogue.
Sean: The scene where May goes to Polly’s front door but Ambrosia is there, it was kind of stupid. All of a sudden Polly is talking like some douchebag frat boy? That shit was so dumb.
Kristine: Polly and Ambrosia were characters right out of The L Word, for sure and that = a problem.
Sean: At first, in the early scenes set at the vet hospital between Polly and May, I thought Polly was being set up as some weird straight girl who just wanted to get gay with May and I think that would have worked. I did like May’s bisexuality, but Polly is such a caricature. I think a minor character like Blank can play as a one-dimensional type and be satirical and it can work. But I would argue that Polly is too central to the plot of the movie, and to May’s character arc, to be played so satirically.
Kristine: She is just some lezzie femme fatale.
Sean: I don’t love it. I mean, I definitely see this as a queer movie, but Polly just sort of sucks all the air out of it.
Kristine: So, can I ask you a question? Did watching this movie make you uncomfortable because some of May’s awkwardness when courting Adam at the beginning reminded you of being a stupid twnetysomething? All stalking people and not understanding when to let go?
Sean: HAAHAHAHAHAAA. I CANNOT BELIEVE YOU ARE ASKING ME THIS!!!!
Kristine: Why?! I’m not singling you out, because it did for me! That phone call to Adam was so cringe-inducing.
Sean: The answer is yes OF COURSE. Her interactons with Adam once he is not into her are just….. excruciating to watch. Adam is like, an amalgam of at least 5 different guys from my past.
Kristine: RIGHT? Who you thought got you, but you were wrong? This is our lives. And then we reveal our true faces…
Sean: I mean, the movie really gets a lot of stuff right just about the interpersonal dynamics of weirdo twentysomething dating situations.
Sean: This is too painful to even talk about! I love Adam’s apartment. I think the set decoration is perfect and total spot-on hipster lothario.
Kristine: Oh, his apartment was brilliant. Add his pride in his weirdness.
Sean: Aren’t there like all these keys hanging in the hallway?
Kristine: Yes, that’s his ART.
Sean: And then that terrible girl he’s with at the end of the movie… She was great in her horribleness and she felt very spot-on and real in her 10 minutes of screentime.
Kristine: He actually handles May pretty sensitively, all things considered.
Sean: He does.I mean, like we said before, I like how Adam is never demonized (even though we come close to that when May is on his porch and overhears him talking to his friend who is all weirdly doing sit-ups). But he’s not a total asshole. He’s a just a run-of-the-mill pretentious-but-affable guy.
Kristine: Yes, that is smart. Not like the monsters in Jennifer’s Body or The Craft. So what’s the deal with Lucky McKee? Is he some hipster horror guy? (His name seems to suggest… YES).
Kristine: How do you feel about him?
Sean: Angela Bettis is his muse. His love of and discovery of Angela makes me love him.
Kristine: Well, I love that. UMM! I just went to Lucky McKee’s wiki page. Is this really what he looks like? Dying.
Sean: He kind of looks like a Fleet Fox.
Kristine: Is she the titular character in The Woman?
Sean: No, she is the wife of the psycho who locks the woman up, and she is really great in the part.
Kristine: I want to see it but I am scared. We have to do it for the blog or else I won’t do it on my own. When May gouges her own eye out, were you cackling with laughter or cringing with disgust?
Sean: Eye trauma always makes me wince and hide my face.
Kristine: It was AWFUL! And her animal wails were amazing and excruciating.
Sean: May is underweight and her tininess kept making me more uncomfortable than any eye-gouging.
Kristine: Yes, her body type played into how she is a kind of manic pixie dream girl fantasy for Adam at the beginning and also her “doll-likeness.”
Kristine: Think about how different the movie would be if she were… a big girl.
Sean: If she was Precious?
Kristine: I thought the movie did a good job of not shying away from showing May’s body, and also showing May exploring her sexuality (with the red bra and the half-shirt) without overly sexualizing her. Do you agree? Though I am sure there are men in the audience who want to fuck her.
Sean: Bettis’ performance in May reminds me most of Toni Colette in Muriel’s Wedding. She can looking grotesque and ugly in some scenes, beautiful and charming in others, terrifying in others… She’s chameleonic and also INCREDIBLY gifted in her body. She fully inhabits her body and uses it as a storytelling tool in every scene. She is capable of being so winsome and creepy and then suddenly so powerful and self-possessed.
Kristine: I agree. Her tics don’t feel exaggerated, though. I have TOTALLY met people that awkward.
Sean: Fyi, Bettis was in the television remake of Carrie... as Carrie White.
Kristine: Oh really? Was that before or after this? Have you seen it? Is it good?
Sean: It was made after this. I have seen it. It isn’t very good, though Bettis is amazing in it. And it rewrites the ending of the movie/book to be this feminist manifesto, where Sue Snell saves Carrie and they go off together so Sue can help Carrie “learn to control her power.” I think they wanted it to kick off a television series, but then they never made the series.
Kristine: Sue SNELL.
Sean: What do we make of the interlude with the blind children? Crawling all over the broken glass?
Kristine: I thought the blind kid thing showed how clueless May was. How could she possibly think blind kids would “get” a doll in a box that they can’t touch? And it was also to move the plot along, a way for the doll to get destroyed, which in turn destroyed her fragile grasp on reality.
Sean: Yes, that read is good. May IS clueless and also, a terrible maternal figure (thank god!). But I also like how the kids turn into this really nasty mob in that scene. All yelling “It’s out! Get it!” The movie is not sentimental at all about those little blind kids, and in fact they’re kind of douchebags. I love in the park when May first sees them and is like, ‘Why the hell are those kids MOVING LIKE THAT?’
Kristine: Hmmmm. I did like how the other adults, the teachers, looked horrified at the blind kiddie mob and DID NOT rush in to help. I think the movie is saying that human differences DO disgust and disturb us, it is just a fact. Like your confession, during our discussion of Phenomena, about the developmentally-disabled adults terrifying you as a kid. Which reminds me! My boyfriend read that anecdote of yours and said he had the same experience, and that he felt bad about his reaction when he got older, but it was fucking terrifying at the time. Anomalies bother us, it is part of our nature. OH MY GOD! On IMDB it says, “If you like May you will also like…” Can you guess?
Sean: Oh god….
Kristine: Don’t look!
Kristine: YEP! Did you look?
Sean: NO. But it makes sense. Crazy girl.
Kristine: So the budget for this movie was $500,000. I think Lucky was really wise in making a “small” picture, not some huge sweeping story.
Sean: Yes. So I love how this movie is a twist on the Frankenstein story, which itself has roots in feminism (historically, seeing as Mary Shelley was the daughter of Wollstonecraft). But I love how the movie takes the “mad scientist” trope and inverts it and feminizes it.
Kristine: Ah, yes. What were your thoughts on her creation? I was a little disappointed.
Sean: Oh the ending, to me, absolutely makes the movie and turns it from just good to truly great. I just want to reflect on the gorgeous and grotesque genderfuck image of that sewn-together body lying there in its little panties.
Sean: The composite of girl and boy parts… just so brilliant and Waters-esque and twisted and queer.
Kristine: I wanted it to be… more scary beautiful and less ReadyMade magazine, but I get that its incongruity speaks to her mental state and also references her aforementioned bisexuality.
Sean: I mean I think its total biological queerness is really important and transgressive.
Kristine: Another feminist thing about the movie is how despite her simpering and such, May is actually very PROACTIVE character. She MAKES the connection and relationship with Adam happen, he doesn’t come across her. And when she snaps, she is the one doing all the action. She is not a passive victim like, say, Carrie White.
Sean: Oh TOTALLY. I was thinking that in the coffeehouse scene when she is trying to get Adam’s attention (hilariously) by cavorting about striking poses. She is a DOER even though she’s a wallflower.
Kristine: She’s not really a wallflower though, right? She’s just that weird. I mean, she is not shy in performing her job duties. I liked that she was successful in her job.
Sean: Oh my god, I know we’ve all ready referenced it, but her story about the dog bursting its stitches made me sick. It also goes to show you how powerful a nicely written little grotesque monologue can be – even more effective than gore effects (though I love those too).
Kristine: Her dog story was horrible. As was May throwing the ashtray at the cat! Does she even like animals? No! She just loved cutting things up and stitching them together!
Sean: The cat that turns up as the pelt/hair of the being at the end.
Kristine: Yeah, I noticed.
Sean: Hilarious and terrible. I do think that cat got what was coming to it. If only May could have popped up for two seconds in Alien to give Jonesy what-for!
Kristine: I really liked how, as you said, SHE is the mad scientist, she CREATES, which is usually an act of male intellect in horror movies. Ladies usually just femininely emote their evilness, again, like Carrie White.
Sean: I’ll tell you the thing I love about the ending – that it is simply the tremendous force of May’s will that animates the being – no bolt of lightning from the sky. I just want to say I agree with you about May’s golem being this act of female creation that is not associated with birth imagery. But it is associated with domesticity – her sewing.
Kristine: Sure, but she is also a scientist and possesses some medical know-how.
Sean: Right, but she doesn’t use science to animate the creature. Did you love that the thing reanimates with no direct cause?
Kristine: I did!
Sean: I also found that cloth head she sewed for it to be really scary.
Kristine: So, what do you think happens next? In the story?
Sean: May got what she wanted. Amy Lives! They listen to Ani DiFranco records and hold each other.
Kristine: Ha ha! VIVA AMY! Oh, I meant to say, the scene when she was crying and rubbing the glass in her eyes bothered me so much. So upsetting.
Sean: Can we talk about Blank, the gutterpunk hipster that May kills after he finds the cat in the freezer?
Kristine: Oh god! Ice cube on the nipples? I was DYING.
Sean: He was HILARIOUS and gross.
Kristine: He was. And a true “type” that exists.
Sean: How is May similar/different than Herbert West? Who also killed a cat and threw it in his freezer?
Kristine: She is different in that her motivations are personal, though her methods are scientific.
Sean: But isn’t that the big gender story here? That men are interested in “big grand narratives” and women aren’t? That’s the difference between horror’s classic mad scientist (Dr. Jekyll, Dr. Frankenstein, Dr. Moreau, Dr. Jack Griffin) and someone like May. I wonder if this movie winds up reinforcing those gender stereotypes. I mean, through that lens, Dr. Susan McAlester from Deep Blue Sea is more of a genderfuck than May is.
Kristine: McAlester’s just your classic phallic woman. May is infinitely more feminine and more interesting, and also queerer to boot. But it’s true tht she wants community and love, not glory or recognition. Good for her!
Sean: It makes me think about all that literary controversy surrounding the publication of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom and how it led to this conversation about male writers vs. female writers. And how when we think of a writer slaving away at the next Great American Novel, we think of a male writer because big epic novels are supposed to be the province of the male imagination (David Foster Walllace, Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, John Dos Passos, etc.). Women writers are supposed to write “small-scale” stories, right?
Kristine: Oh sure, yeah compare Jonathan Franzen’s writing to Alice Munro’s. I also think it is interesting how when you ask the “big” male writers what female writers they enjoy, they mention women who write domestic stories, like Munro. Who is great by the way, better than Franzen.
Sean: So, May rating?
Kristine: I want to say, “A worthy film but won’t keep me up at night” but that doesn’t capture the fun and wit of the movie. Maybe “Problematic but fun as hell” along with “A worthy movie….” And you?
Sean: “Bloody wonderful genderfuck” is my rating.
Kristine: I like it!
The Girl’s Rating: A worthy film but won’t keep me up at night. AND Problematic but fun as hell.
The Freak’s Rating: Bloody wonderful genderfuck.