‘May in the Summer’ Review
Who is May? She's a half-American, half-Palestinian Christian, born and raised in Amman, Jordan and living as an author in New York City. That's a lot of labels, so you can somewhat understand why she's having trouble figuring out what she wants in life.
She's back in Amman, as are her two fellow ex-pat sisters, Yasmine, something of a party girl, and Dalia, a snarky (likely) lesbian. They're all here for her wedding to a fellow New York intellectual, a secular Muslim, which does not go over well with her fanatically Christian mother. This disagreement is just one in a long line she's had with her divorced parents, and it's clear that she had best square away some of those emotional troubles before she starts a family of her own.
Mom is played by Hiam Abbas (from 'The Visitor,' 'Lemon Tree,' and 'The Syrian Bride') and Dad, now on his second wife, is played by Bill Pullman. Dalia, the comic relief, is played as half-neurotic half-goofball by Alia Shawkat, and May is played by writer/director Cherien Dabis, best known for her film 'Amreeka.' They, and all the others, are truly top notch in a film that, unfortunately, sets up shop in a great setting but doesn't quite know where to go.
Since we've seen movies before, we know that May will ultimately break off her engagement (to Alexander Siddig - 'Deep Space Nine''s Dr. Bashir of all people!) so presenting us with the specifics is treated as an afterthought. We are asked to merely accept that May is having second thoughts, despite no reasons given. 'May in the Summer' spends most of its running time alternating between dopey sequences like snooping around bedrooms to preposterous incidental music or letting the fireworks fly with histrionic scenes of crying and yelling.
Yet between the soap opera and the sitcom there are, indeed, some sublime moments, most of which exploit the film's location. A major set piece takes place at a Dead Sea resort, and the naturally buoyant water afford the camera department a unique framing opportunity for introspective bathers. Later, when May angrily races away from an allegedly shocking family revelation she ends up in the arms of an "adventure tour guide" who shows her the stars and rock faces of the Wadi Rum.
For each time Dabis nails it, though, something comes along to take the wind from the sails. An example is Mom surreptitiously partaking in an "old wives' tale" ritual with a knotted rope. Since we the audience need to know what it is about, May asks her sisters. However, May is the celebrated author whose latest book is all about discussing the modern implications of Middle Eastern customs. It's a little thing, but it's sloppy, and fairly indicative of the graceless way information is divulged throughout the film.
At the end of the day 'May in the Summer' is a "nice" movie. You'll like the characters and this is a world that is rarely represented in films. (When the girls pressure Mom to date more, she says she's only interested in Palestinian Christians living in Jordan who support equality for women.) This specificity comes close to making up for the otherwise generic storyline. Close. What we end up with is a Miramax film from the early-to-mid 1990s. Something a tiny bit edgy to watch on VHS back in the day, but something you don't need to feel too guilty about skipping today.
'May in the Summer' premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.
Jordan Hoffman is a writer, critic and lapsed filmmaker living in New York City. His work can also be seen on Film.com, Badass Digest and StarTrek.com.