May in the Summer: Sundance Review

Cherien Dabis, Nadine Malouf and Alia Shawkat
Cherien Dabis' story of a woman navigating the internal clash of independence, tradition and family history is entertaining but lacks a distinctive flavor to match its setting.

The Sundance 2013 U.S. Dramatic Competition gets under way with writer-director-actor Cherien Dabis' sophomore feature set in Jordan.

PARK CITY – The delicate humor, strong sense of cultural identity and deep affection for her characters that distinguished Cherien Dabis’s Amreeka are again in evidence in her second feature, May in the Summer. But while there’s much to enjoy here – particularly in the touching performance of Hiam Abbass – there’s also plenty that is cliched and forced in this rather conventional story of a young American-Jordanian woman hesitating on the precipice of marriage.

Underlining her personal connection to the lives being depicted onscreen, the writer-director also steps in front of the camera for the first time. She plays May, a New Yorker who has published a successful book reinterpreting Arabic proverbs and is now beginning a novel set in 1940s Palestine. But when she arrives in Amman to prepare for her wedding to Ziad (Alexander Siddig), a respected American academic, her doubts and distractions swiftly multiply.

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Her younger sisters, Dalia (Alia Shawkat) and Yasmine (Nadine Malouf), have also returned to the country of their childhood summers, with bachelorette party revelry on their minds. But their mother Nadine (Abbass), a convert to evangelical Christianity, disapproves of her daughter’s impending marriage to a Muslim, threatening to skip the wedding. Lonely and bitter since her American husband Edward (Bill Pullman) left her several years ago for a younger woman (Ritu Singh Pande), Nadine has her reasons to be hostile to the idea of another interfaith, intercultural union in the family.

Attractively shot by Brian Rigney Hubbard, the film has a vivid feel for the fusion in Jordan of tradition with American influences. Propelled by Carlo Siliotto’s jaunty Middle-East-meets-West score, it moves along breezily, especially in the early action, with Dabis showing a keen understanding of the mellow bonds and sudden eruptions of friction between sisters. The wise-ass cynicism of Shawkat’s Dalia, in particular, yields lovely moments of low-key comedy.

As Ziad’s arrival from the U.S. draws closer, May’s uncertainty becomes harder to ignore, even if she can’t quite identify the cause of her anxiety. Her state of mind is not eased by what she perceives as her mother’s primitive ploy to jinx her marriage, or by revelations concerning her father that rekindle old resentments. And her quasi-romantic friendship with handsome new acquaintance Karim (Elie Mitri) also contributes to leave her feeling unsettled.

The sisters’ trip to a Dead Sea resort, a short distance across the water from occupied Palestine, provides a striking visual contrast to vistas of the densely populated city. The same goes for an interlude in which Karim, an adventure tourism guide, provides May with an illuminating moment of serenity by taking her to experience the desert at night.

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But ultimately, the film is naggingly lightweight, failing to dig very deep into the issues it touches. And as it struggles to arrive at a satisfying conclusion, some of the late-action disclosures seem trite. It’s never less than pleasurable but rarely more than that, and its depiction of a woman feeling the pull of two separate identities within her background lacks specificity, especially considering how closely the character mirrors Dabis’ own background.

Performances are warm and appealing across the board, with Dabis displaying natural poise and soulfulness on-camera, and Pullman bringing some welcome shadings to his brief screen time.

The most compelling presence, however, is Abbass, who appeared in Amreeka and is best known in the U.S. for her exquisite work in Thomas McCarthy’s The Visitor. As a caring but judgmental woman wrestling with love, anger and her own secrets, she supplies an emotional gravitas that’s missing in the somewhat processed treatment of the principal plotline.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)

Cast: Cherien Dabis, Alia Shawkat, Nadine Malouf, Ritu Singh Pande, Hiam Abbass, Alexander Siddig, Bill Pullman, Elie Mitri

Production companies: Displaced Pictures, Anonymous Content Production, in association with Doha Film Institute, Durga Entertainment Productions, Whitewater Films

Director-screenwriter: Cherien Dabis

Producers: Cherien Dabis, Alix Madigan-Yorkin, Christopher Tricarico

Executive producers: Ritu Singh Pande, Rick Rosenthal, Nicholas Morton

Director of photography: Brian Rigney Hubbard

Production designer: Ola Maslik

Music: Carlo Siliotto

Costume designer: Beatrice Harb

Editor: Sabine Hoffman

Sales: Elle Driver

No rating, 99 minutes.