May in the Summer
Directed by Cherien Dabis
Screenplay by Cherien Dabis
May in the Summer is a strong second feature from writer/director Cherien Dabis, whose Amreeka debuted at Sundance in 2009. After an uneasy and clunky start, the second half effectively blends the desperation of decision with a spectacular visual sense of discovery.
May (Dabis) is a successful writer with one book under her belt who journeys from New York to her family home in Amman, Jordan for her imminent wedding. Her long divorced parents (Hiam Abbass, Bill Pullman) and her two sisters (Nadine Malouf and Arrested Development’s Alia Shawkat) must come together to support her. May’s mother is still wounded 8 years after being abandoned by her husband and has retreated into Christianity for respite. So it comes as no surprise to May that she is vehemently opposed to her marrying a man of Muslim descent. Even though he is secular, all her mother can see is that the union is yet another way in which she isn’t being respected. With a furrowed brow, clenched fist or bowed head, the subtleties in which Abbass conveys how easily broken she is by the slightest affront are particularly sharp and keep the story going until it gets down to the deeper issues that the other characters have kept quiet from each other. The family squabbles and sisterly shopping expeditions are mildly entertaining but give one no indication whatsoever of a cohesive emotion to pin to the movie.
It is only when the three sisters take a road trip to a Dead Sea spa for May’s bachelorette party that their inhibitions and animosity towards each other are broken down. As the closeness of her family has at length been shattered by the end of their parents’ marriage, time and distance- scenes where they play in mud and sunbathe are essential to them once again becoming sisters. They behave like kids again- the girls they were before the divorce and their illusions fell away. The sisters almost fully laying on top of the Dead Sea (a body of water where so much salt is present that it’s density makes it easier to float) is gorgeously filmed by cinematographer Brian Rigney Hubbard. Their nearly completely buoyant bodies make dramatic silhouettes that aren’t exploitative but instead curve or jut out in the water in such way that brings the emotional state of May more sharply into focus. Revelations that tumble out between them don’t completely mend their lives but act to ease pain. Alia Shawkat’s sardonic and cynical sister balances out the seriousness of May with the princess flippancy of Malouf’s Yasmine.
The buried family tension having come to the surface and increasingly curt long distance phone calls from her fiance bring May’s own secret discontent out. Dabis finely crafts May’s headstrong, modern and feminist point of view as she runs through conservative neighborhoods. In shorts and with her hair down, women and men alike leer at her boldness. She is being gawked at but she stares back. She is not controlled by a gaze or by anyone else’s decisions- including the mistakes of her parents. Running is a way for her to escape her mental confines. The decision to get married weighs heavily on her. While details about why May is unhappy with her fiance are blurry, they are bad enough that she confides her general apprehension with a man named Karim. The sweet, not fully fleshed out Karim eventually takes her far outside of town to see the stars. After spending the night talking, she wakes up to find herself a tiny figure framed against the vast expanse of a rocky, stunningly gorgeous landscape. This impresses in the bigger picture that appearing to be perfect doesn’t matter to anyone but her. She will have to live with whatever choices she makes and doesn’t have to do anything that doesn’t feel right. In the middle of nowhere is where she is able to fully realize herself. It’s not an endeavour that pleases the entire way through but there is much to appreciate in the striking way the sisters and their mother are able to decide their lives with such consideration in order to begin to fully share their lives.
– Lane Scarberry