Cherien Dabis’s May in the Summer (Dabis is the writer, director, and star of the film, as well as a co-producer) follows May and her sisters – who all grew up in the U.S. — on a visit to Amman, Jordan to prepare for May’s wedding.
The wedding is the central plot device of the film, and in some ways is also its central flaw. May’s devoutly Christian mother (Hiam Abbass) disapproves of her Palestinian Muslim fiancé Ziad (Alexander Siddig in almost no screen time whatsoever), who is a high-profile scholar in the U.S. Additionally, May and Ziad are trying to hide their cold feet from Ziad’s mother who is deliriously into wedding planning, while May juggles the dramas of her divorced parents and the twenty-something growing pains of her sisters.
Aspects of the film are spectacular. For those who have spent significant time in the Middle East or other developing regions, the film is a spot-on depiction of how much life in these places is and isn’t like the U.S. For those who have not had such experiences, the familiarity, along with the seemingly odd cultural juxtapositions, may be delightfully shocking. The low key background acknowledgement of the conflicts in the region is also deftly handled.
The relationships between the three sisters are also gorgeously written and portrayed, although they don’t really get off the ground until the film’s second half with a revelation from the youngest sister, Dalia (played with quirky, surly truthfulness by Alia Shawkat).
Additionally, the French farce of May’s parents having an affair with each other in the hospital when her estranged father (Bill Pullman) is hospitalized for a heart attack is both tragic and zany, evoking the finer moments of Pedro Almodovar’s work.
The matter of the wedding however, falls flat, leaving the film without a central core. Ziad is by turns unlikable and remote, and we’re perfectly happy when May decides not to go through with the ceremony. But nearly every second devoted to this issue seems like a waste for taking us away from the film’s far more compelling narratives, including a brief, uncertain romance between May and local taxi driver and tour guide Karim (the handsome and charming Elie Mitri).
While they never do more than kiss, and May doesn’t leave Ziad for Karim so much as realize she should leave Ziad because of Karim, their romance is compelling, sexy, gentle, joyous, and also bittersweet. Just as I would have happily watched a film more centered on the three sisters, I would have happily watched a film centered on May and Karim.
Ultimately, May in the Summer, drags in places and feels both unfocused and contrived in many aspects. When it excels, however, it achieves a truthfulness and compassion I’ve rarely encountered on screen. For most viewers, this probably doesn’t need to be more than a rental experience, but it is worth your consideration and should make us all curious to see how Dabis’s work develops in the future.
May in Summer hits theaters today.