This is one of the year’s best films.
• Michał Oleszczyk in Park City
At night, the ski slopes of Park City, Utah, are lit so beautifully they look like screens awaiting a projection from the sky. A moviegoer attending Sundance Film Festival couldn't wish for a better backdrop for a long trek home after the final movie of the day is over. Even if the film happened to be lousy, those huge mid-air patches of white seem to hint that the good stuff is yet to come.
This year's fest has barely started and still needs to gain momentum (there are certainly titles, like Shane Carruth's "Upstream Color," with tremendous build-up). Unfortunately, the first and only movie I managed to see on the day of my arrival -- Cherien Dabis' "May in the Summer" -- was a disappointment.
A story of a successful New York-based writer visiting her family in Jordan and facing a string of cultural, religious and personal conundrums, "May..." is a failed comedy of self-discovery. Writer-director-star Dabis (of "Amereeka" fame) uses a cliché-ridden script to tell a story of a woman trying to hold onto a modern, career-oriented identity she forged for herself. As everything around her seems to crumble and relationships with her family become more and more of a strain, titular May faces uncomfortable questions that shake up her world.
The pressures she has to face are many. Her mom is a fundamentalist Christian and the prospect of May's upcoming marriage to a (secular) Muslim is so unacceptable to her that she plans to boycott the wedding. Added to that are typical squabbles with May's two younger sisters, an uneasy relationship she has with her dad, growing creative angst, and a dawning realization she may not want to marry the guy she chose at all. The latter doubt is reinforced by a generic meet-cute with an open-faced local tennis coach: a spokesperson for "authenticity" and "real feeling" who at one point encourages May to "talk to the stars."
The main problem of the movie is its central character: as played by Dabis, there's nothing in May that would make us believe she's a writer capable of igniting her readers' imagination. The constant string of congratulations she receives on her recently published first book is the film's running joke, but it seems to be coming out of nowhere, since we don't get to see May as a woman of wit and/or literary passion (a shot of her reading a book is nowhere to be found). If anything, she suggests a supermodel taking a break from an exhausting photo shoot.
The film trips on its own asset. Dabis the actress is stunningly beautiful, but Dabis the director is much too aware of that fact for her own good. Her lanky figure on perpetual display, her face a happy cross of Emily Blunt and Cher, Dabis is never less than stunning, but instead of soft-pedaling the point and making her beauty a natural fact of life, the movie stoops very low in selling it at every possible turn. Even when May wears shades, her big eyes remain slightly uncovered, and a massive hangover she experiences is signaled by nothing more than gentle muss-up of her gorgeous black hair. Such reverence is ultimately demeaning, since it suggests a successful woman couldn't be possibly represented as anyone but an all-around great looker.
Furthermore, May is a woman who has it all, but scores no points with us on-screen; everything we're supposed to admire in her we learn from explanatory dialogue. She's supposed to have written a great book on Arabic proverbs, but we don't see her interacting with Jordanian culture at all. She jogs the streets of Amman in her Central Park attire, abhors the inconveniences of faulty plumbing and scarcely talks to anyone besides her immediate family. At times, she comes dangerously close to such first-world-problem divas as the Julia Roberts character in the abysmal "Eat Pray Love" -- even though she does get one fig leaf of a line, in which she muses on "the pettiness of our concerns" in the face of the political realities of our world.
What makes the movie watchable, after all, are two strong supporting turns by Hiam Abbass as the main character's mother (both fearless and sappy in her stubborn religiosity) and "Arrested Developement"'s Alia Shawkat as one of Dabis' younger sisters: a walking curly-haired reality principle if there ever was one. Still, the movie remains too infatuated with itself: cute musical cues, sitcom one-liners and all. Toward the end, there's an even embarrassing stab at epiphany, as May wakes up in the desert and is faced with natural beauty beyond all description. Unfortunately, by that time we've ceased to care, and whatever change of heart the main character may be undergoing, we don't side with her. We just want her to leave us alone already.
Michał Oleszczyk is a well-known film critic in Poland, and a Far-Flung Correspondent for this site.
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