|'); document.write(''); //-->|
Right about now the Oscar buzz is full of finger-pointing as to why this year's nominees aren't racially diverse, or which movie should win because if its 'important' subject. Some are also bemoaning the failure of the Academy to nominate a woman director, as if doing so were an unwritten requirement. Well, the latest movie by a female filmmaker that impresses me is Cherien Dabis's highly entertaining May in the Summer from 2013. The Jordanian-American Ms. Dabis also wrote, produced and stars, showing herself to be more than capable in all categories.
May in the Summer is a comedy-drama about modern women and cultural identity. Dabis' 2009 feature Amreeka followed some Jordanian immigrants coming to Indiana. This time around the journey is reversed, in line with the filmmaker's personal experience. The absorbing family drama is also highly amusing -- and it's better than most of the pretentious, 'important subject' films I've seen this year by women or men. It's gratifying to see a movie about the Middle East or any place outside the U.S. that isn't about war, terrorism or reducing foreigners to targets for a sniper.
Published writer May Brennan (Cherien Dabis) flies from New York to the beautiful city of Amman to marry her fiance Ziad (Alexander Siddig). May and her sisters Yasmine (Nadine Malouf) and Dalia (Alla Shawkat) have dual citizenship with one foot in the secular U.S. culture and the other in the highly Christian household of their Jordanian mother Nadine (Hiam Abbass). Nadine is openly distressed that May is marrying a Muslim; May's future mother-in-law is arranging a showcase wedding. Zaid can't come for several weeks, so May and her sisters have a chance to figure each other out. Yasmine left a good job recently and isn't telling the reason why; she presently has a boyfriend. Dalia has made a decision concerning her sexuality but isn't comfortable confiding in Yasmine, who is incapable of keeping a personal secret. May finds herself dealing with even more basic family problems -- her American father Edward Brennan (Bill Pullman) left years ago to marry a younger woman (Ritu Singh Pande). He's been estranged all that time, but suddenly wants to reopen contact with May. She feels the push and pull of these family obligations, and Ziad suddenly seems unrelated to it all. She's also met this local tour guide, Karim (Elie Mitri)...
Cherien Dabis ought to be better known. She's a skilled and beautiful actress but that almost seems detail in this handsomely directed film, with a bright, witty script that convinces us we're gaining insight into the lives of our neighbors. Dabis' May is as Americanized as any Ohio-grown girl can be, yet discovers that she also has one foot rooted back in the Old Country. Old traditions are still there. May has no crisis of consciences about marrying a Muslim because both she and her husband-to-be lead non-practicing secular lives. But there's still Mother to deal with. The last thing the girls will do is sacrifice themselves to tradition (not after twenty years of living in the U.S.) but one can't ignore one's family. May and her sisters also feel emotionally wounded by their parents' marital split. Don't expect overplayed scenes, screaming or dire threats - this is not a Neal Simon sitcom, but a great comedy-drama that doesn't require an outrageous hook to justify its existence. If people can make movies about Big Fat Greek Weddings, there should be room for a slightly more serious crossover show like this one.
Jordan is not presented as an exotic or mysterious place. Driving from the Amman airport to mother's house, Yasmine sees some Muslim women with their heads covered in black cloth and calls them 'ninjas'. May drinks too much when the girls go to a nightclub to dance and drink, but she's not in danger; the young man outside that offers to drive her home has no ill intentions. May runs in a jogging outfit, and is not censured (or arrested) for insulting common decency. Filmmaker Dabis is showing us that Jordan is not that dissimilar than the U.S.; the streets aren't alive with terrorists and the religious contrasts are not violent.
That doesn't mean that the tensions aren't there. Nadine is a bundle of pain and resentments, which she gets out of her system at a Christian church. The church entranceway has a life-size standee of a smiling Jesus, which the film acknowledges as tacky without slamming Nadine's choice of worship. And when May visits her prospective Mother-in-law, the discomfort isn't over religion but the excessive extravagance planned for the wedding. As May asks her sisters, is it right to spend half of everything one owns for a fancy wedding?
May and her sisters have an uneasy meeting with their father and his new wife. Dad thinks everyone should act like nothing's happened and the girls expect him to say something about all the pain he's caused. The new wife isn't too sure of things either -- could dad be cheating on her as well? A weekend girls-only jaunt to the Dead Sea becomes the pivot point of May's experience. Here's where the American and American-Jordanian tourists congregate. After floating in the sea's hyper-buoyant water the sisters' secrets come out -- loudly. The odd embarrassed silence that ends the scene is interrupted by the scream of a jet overhead, possibly on its way to Gaza or occupied Palestine. War is always right next door, but nobody pays it any attention.
Dabis frames her serious story in a light setting but underplays the comic elements, even a cross-town chase to follow Nadine when she sneaks out of the house at midnight. The show becomes neither a farce nor a tearjerker. The characters are interesting and likeable, and they're dealing with problems we understand. Part of being a secular, unattached professional woman of means is that one has the freedom to make one's own choices. But is that really true? Nobody has control over the chaos of their own family, and May in the Summer doesn't pretend that any one problem will be solved. It feels like life being lived.
Ms. Dabis wisely does not frame her alter ego May as the ultimate modern in-control woman. May takes a drive to the desert with her new friend Karim, and wakes up on a vast orange plain. She's dwarfed by dramatic stone crags that make Monument Valley look like a miniature golf course. (I think the area might have been a location for Lawrence of Arabia.) She's obviously impressed by the grandeur, but her reaction is not pitched as a moment of 'heritage self-realization'. Everything's changed but the land. She's a modern woman and will have to find her own way.
Ms. Dabis' writing skills really come out in the exchanges between the sisters, and the acting give & take between them is flawless. Dabis's direction is even stronger -- scenes are fluid, we're not particularly aware of cutting and the director pulls no flashy tricks. The locations and the characters dictate the camera style. I liked May in the Summer as much if not more than the celebrated dramas competing for Oscars this year. Did Cohen Media find this show at Sundance? It was nominated there for the Grand Jury Prize, 'Dramatic'.
The film is rated 'R', but for the life of me I don't see why. Are only Anglos allowed to use the 'F' word once or twice without being dunned by the ratings code? This movie is refreshingly respectful of religions, nationalities, marriage and sex itself. Maybe that's dangerous.
Cohen Media Group's Blu-ray of May in the Summer is a quality HD encoding of this attractive widescreen feature. The movie doesn't go in for travelogue shots, but four or five wide views of Amman and the Jordanian desert make us ready to see more. The natural lighting flatters the homes of what are surely well-off Christians and Muslims. The music choices reflect the growth of a secular, tolerant culture, with mixes of traditional singing and rock. Most of the dialogue is in English but Nadine tends to speak in Arabic when trying to enforce her opinions. Two sizes of subtitle fonts differentiate the languages, which works well.
Cohen's EPK featurette is a brief chat with Cherien Dabis, who stresses the contribution of her fellow actresses. She describes their interaction as an extension of their real friendships. This is no small-town movie and really not a niche ethnic production: the actress playing the father's new wife has an Indian background. Dabis impresses us as intelligent, realistic and friendly. When she mentions her earlier feature Amreeka, our first thought is that we'd like to see it. It stars this film's Hiam Abbass and Alia Shawkat, but I don't see Ms. Dabis in the cast list.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
May in the Summer Blu-ray
The version of this review on the Savant main site has additional images, footnotes and credits information, and may be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.