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Ana (Grace Van Patten), a lowly hotel worker, finds herself transported to another world where a war is raging and a clutch of young women lure men to their deaths at sea via radio transmissions, like 20th century sirens, in Mayday, a U.S. Dramatic Competition entry at this year’s Sundance.
Like several other intriguing, Gothic-tinged but quite bonkers female-centric fantastical features made by upcoming women directors recently (see, for instance, Amanda Kramer’s Ladyworld, Alice Waddington’s Paradise Hills or, the mama of them all, Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s Innocence), first-time writer-director Karen Cinorre’s Mayday is less interested in logic than creating a sense of mystery and fractious group dynamics. Imagine the dream logic of The Wizard of Oz meets Heathers, but this time all the girls are murderous witches. The final effect is alternately bewitching and faintly dull.
Still, for viewers happy to go with the flow and drink in the fetching cast with their photoshoot-ready hair and killer retro costumes and, above all, the entrancing blend of sound and music that makes the whole package feel like an extended video for some avant-garde beat combo, this will be fun enough.
Shy Anastasia or “Ana” (Van Patten, looking like a younger version of Shailene Woodley) works at a seaside hotel as a housekeeper/waitress. She’s good friends with a co-worker named Dimitri (Theodore Pellerin) who wants her to sing while he plays keyboards at a wedding that evening, but she insists she’s “not that kind of girl.” When an approaching storm causes power cuts and Ana’s boss is verbally abusive to her, or possibly worse, in a freezer where we can’t see what’s happening, she freaks out. After trying to throw the master trip switch to turn the power back on, she hears an alluring feminine voice spelling out “mayday” with a phonetic alphabet (i.e. “mary alpha yankee delta alpha yankee”) and follows the sound all the way into a lit gas oven, like Gretel in the Grimm fairy tale.
A short swim through an unexpected body of water and Ana finds herself on a temperate island among a cadre of women warriors, led by the charismatic but ruthless Marsha (Mia Goth). The other soldiers include Bea (Havana Rose Liu) and Gert (Stephanie ‘Soko’ Sokolinski). Later on we meet older mechanic June, played by Juliette Lewis, whom the film already featured briefly during the hotel scenes as a bathroom attendant. She’s one of the many people who play dual roles here, like the Kansas/Oz twinned characters in The Wizard of Oz.
Judging by the uniforms on the soldiers the women are battling against, the repurposed U-boat the gang lives in and their shabby chic leather jackets and A-line dresses, it would seem Marsha and the women are fighting in WWII — presumably on the Allied side given Marsha’s British and Gert’s soft French accents. But many other details make the period setting a bit blurry, and in any case it soon becomes clear that their main adversaries aren’t Fascists but any soldiers who come near the island, including sailors they lure to their doom via the mayday signal and false coordinates that lead the ships into deadly storms. Ana grows close to Marsha, especially after displaying unusually good aim, but then she becomes increasingly aware that she doesn’t really belong in this world.
Cinematographer Sam Levy, also one of the film’s producers, manages to make the women all look like dazzlingly beautiful Amazonian huntresses, backlit by sunlight, as they caper about the Croatian location used. (Look closely and you might swear you recognize forests and stretches of beach from Game of Thrones.) The action scenes, featuring a certain amount of hand-to-hand combat, are nippily staged, but there is a languor throughout that drains the film of energy. It doesn’t help that Ana keeps spending time in bed hanging out with her new buddies and then falling asleep, which makes watching the film feel like a slumber party with psychopaths.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)
Cast: Grace Van Patten, Mia Goth, Stephanie ‘Soko’ Sokolinski, Havana Rose Liu, Juliette Lewis, Theodore Pellerin, Frano Maskovic, Zlatko Buric, Francesco Piacentini-Smith, Nathaniel Allen, Hyoie O’Grady
Production: A Queen’s Army, Complementary Colors presentation in association with Secret Engine
Director/screenwriter: Karen Cinorre
Producers: Jonah Disend, Lucas Joaquin, Karen Cinorre, Sam Levy
Executive producers: Gabriella Ludlow, Ocar Boyson
Director of photography: Sam Levy
Production designer: Ivan Veliaca
Costume designer: Ola Staszko
Editor: Nicholas Ramirez
Music: Colin Stetson
Music supervisor: Susan Jacobs, Jackie Mulhearn
Casting: Douglas Aibel
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