Film Review – May in the Summer
May in the Summer
Most films that take place in the Middle East often serve to humanize the “other” to American audiences. Those weird Muslims and/or conservative Jews are not like us on the surface, but look, we’re all just the same underneath! This is kind of important considering the post 911 climate we live in; recognizing our common humanity in a time of paranoia and violence is maybe not a bad thing. However, the idea that there is a true separation of “us” and “them” is a false dichotomy. (No matter how much some people want it to be true.) The world is a pretty connected place, and there are a lot of folks who move seamlessly between one sphere and another – if one can even truly say there are separate spaces anymore. Director Cherien Dabis’s new film, May in the Summer, tells the story of one such family, where three daughters are as equally comfortable in the United States and in Jordan because both countries are home. Not everyone in the film is capable of such fluidity, but those who are born to it take it for granted. All this is subtext by the way, but it adds some depth to an already good film.
May Brennan (Cherien Dabis) is back in Amman to prepare for her marriage to college professor Ziad (Alexander Siddig). She’s kind of got it going on right now: Ziad is super supportive and loving, his mother is taking on most of the wedding planning, and May’s recent book is receiving accolades from both friends and strangers. But like nearly everything in life, there are complications. Her mother Nadine (Hiam Abbass) is a born-again Christian who refuses to come to the wedding because Ziad is Muslim. While she is dismissive of any religion that isn’t hers, she is mostly against the union because her own experience with cross-cultural marriage was a disaster. May’s father (Bill Pullman), an American diplomat, is suddenly trying to fit himself and his new wife into May’s life after a long absence. May’s sisters Yasmine (Nadine Malouf) and Dalia (Alia Shawkat) are also in town for the wedding and tend to stir up trouble by virtue of just being sisters. Each member of the family has at least one secret to reveal, and as the truths are teased out one by one, May comes closer to admitting that perhaps her life isn’t as on track as she’s been portraying it, and maybe that’s okay.
I really enjoyed this film, but if I have one criticism, and I do, it’s that there’s not enough Alexander Siddig in it. (Deep Space Nine is the best Star Trek. Next Generation sucks. Don’t yell at me, it’s a fact. I don’t invent facts, they just are.) But, there’s lots of Alia Shawkat, and that always makes me happy. In fact, the whole cast is great here. I don’t talk a lot about acting in my reviews unless something really sticks out good or bad, but all the performances really work well here to create a sense of family. This film is a comedy/drama type of thing, and the humor comes not from jokes, but from situations. Families are weird and funny and annoying, and this group really succeeds at showing that. Hiam Abbass is especially good as May’s mother. She wants what she wants for her children and is not afraid to express her opinion, but loves them just the same when they go against her wishes. Abbass gives Nadine an earnestness that makes her sympathetic instead of a shrewish caricature played for laughs.
It’s also cool to get a sense of Jordan in this film. Honestly, I don’t know crap about that country, and that’s a shame because Amman looks like a great place. One of the things I love most about cinema is its ability to show me the world. I wasn’t really able to travel much until I hit my late 30s, and man, did movies make me want to go see it all. I may never get to go there, but Jordan’s now on my list.
May in the Summer is a little slight in parts, but overall it’s an enjoyable slice-of-life picture, which seems to be pretty rare right now. It reminds me of a lot of some the films I saw play at arthouse cinemas in the 80s and 90s. A lot of those films weren’t particularly arty, but there was definitely an audience for small dramas set in cool locales or time periods. I’m not seeing a lot of films like this anymore and it’s a shame. Do yourself a favor and go see this movie. (If you are a dude who is questioning if a female-centered movie with no gun play is of interest to you, it is. Stop being such a wuss.)