May in the Summer
Cohen Film Collection // R // $29.98 // January 20, 2015
Review by Tyler Foster | posted January 28, 2015
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It is surprisingly tough to figure out how to write about May in the Summer, the new film by Amreeka writer / director Cherien Dabis. The story, about the emotional spiral that May (Dabis, in her first acting role) falls into after returning to her hometown of Amaan the month before her wedding, is a familiar one for the movies -- hell, cold feet at the altar might happen more on the silver screen than it does in real life. Yet, there is something very specific and precise about the way Dabis maneuvers the strings on May's stresses that makes for a compelling and funny film, weaving in details about race, gender, sexuality, and religion that help make the film stand out even among similar stories.

May is joined by her sisters, Yasmine (Nadine Malouf) and Dalia (Alia Shawkat), all of them staying in their childhood home with their mother, Nadine (Hiam Abbass). It's been eight years since Nadine got a divorce from their father, Edward (Bill Pullman), who also lives in the area with his new wife Anu (Ritu Singh Pande), but tensions are still high between all members of the family over the acrimonious end to their 20-year relationship, which happened while all three sisters were still living at home. On the other hand, May is not joined by her fiancee, Ziad (Alexander Siddig), a fact that everyone except May is suspicious of.

From nearly every angle, May is faced with some kind of immense pressure. Although Nadine is happy to have her girls back at home, she tells May she will not be attending the wedding because Ziad is a Muslim. May has recently written a book and then toured to promote it, but the second one is not coming as easily, a fact that keeps being thrown in her face whenever one of her mother's friends asks what she's working on next. She uses writing as an excuse to minimize her participation in the wedding planning, which is being handled by Ziad's mother, but accomplishes nothing, staring at a blank screen. All three sisters go to visit Edward (Dalia against her will) and meet Anu, a casual lunch that creates more tension at home and puts May in a compromising position later that she is forced to confront Edward about. Throughout, she talks with Ziad by telephone, but half the time one party reaches a voicemail rather than the other person, and wherever she goes, she feels the stares of both men and women, leering at her body and her American clothing.

Conceptually, there are times when I wondered whether or not I'd already seen this very movie, down to details like May writing and deleting the first sentence of her new book, or the way her chance encounter with kindly, handsome tour guide Karim (Elie Mitri) outside a nightclub complicates her existing problems. Yet, Dabis draws out a single thread that ties the entire film together, the rippling impact of her parents' divorce, invigorating the film by dangling each familiar story thread off of this unique clothesline. As the first of the three children to get married, she feels obligated to avoid the mistakes her parents made, yet every possibility laid out in front of her could just as easily be interpreted as falling into that trap. Marrying a Muslim might be no different than Nadine's choice to marry a white American man, yet forcing herself to go through with a marriage she doesn't believe in could be setting herself up for failure. To make matters worse, she is surrounded by people who make her feel more isolated. Neither parent makes for an objective conversationalist, Yasmine can't keep a secret, and Dalia seems to reject the concept of marriage entirely. The one person she wants to talk to is Ziad, and he's thousands of miles away.

Despite this being her film acting role, Dabis is a natural in the lead, wisely underplaying May's inner turmoil (not to mention a scene where May gets drunk). She has a strong chemistry with Malouf and Shawkat (despite a couple of montage sequences that aren't half as effective as the trio just talking and interacting with one another), an even stronger bond with Abbass (whose aggressive self-assurance plays nicely off of the meekness of Dabis' character, and who gets to show off her comedic chops later in the movie), and possibly even the strongest with Pullman (a scene in which May confronts him about his problems is one of the film's most compelling dramatic moments). A third role doesn't take away from her directorial eye, either. Scenes of May jogging down the street slow down to emphasize each set of eyes boring into her, and she captures some incredible vistas of the desert, undisturbed aside from a few wandering camels. Certain shots, such as the one that ends the movie, are a bit on the nose, but, like the film's story, Dabis' intent wins out over the familiarity of the metaphor.

The Blu-ray
May in the Summer is decked out in Cohen Media's traditional style, with the big red "C" bordering the cover, the film's poster image (of Dabis in the car with Shawkat, looking out the window, hair blowing into her face) framed within. The one-disc release comes in a transparent Viva Elite Blu-ray case, and there is a little booklet for the film inside the case.

The Video and Audio
As should be expected, Cohen Media's 2.39:1 1080p AVC video and DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track are both very strong. This is a natural-looking film, and the image has a crisp digital pop to it that emphasizes detail and color. The city has a very monotone appearance, made up of earth tones, but May often wears eye-catching reds and pinks that pop off the screen. In at least one dark scene, a bit of inconsistent banding is visible, but it's a very minor distraction. This is mostly a dialogue-heavy film, although there is some use of the surrounds by the score, and a club sequence gives the film a couple of moments to utilize the low end. English subtitles are provided, which cover any dialogue that is not already translated on-screen with stylized, "burnt-in" captions as one would've seen in a theater.

The Extras
A very short making-of featurette (2:09, HD) with Dabis is included. It's a promotional puff piece, although a surprising amount of information is packed into two minutes.

A trailer for The Liberator plays before the main menu. An original theatrical trailer for May in the Summer is also included.

Conclusion
May in the Summer is a funny and affecting film, one that manages to hit its marks and allows the viewers to connect with the characters and story emotionally through observational specificity that lifts up what is technically a fairly familiar story. Recommended.



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