Posted in: Disc Reviews by John Ceballos on January 29th, 2015
“Love is an endless act of forgiveness.”
May Brennan is the best-selling author of a successful book centered around Arabic proverbs. She is played by Cherien Dabis, who is also the writer/director/producer of May in the Summer. Both Dabis and her fictional counterpart use short, pithy phrases like the one above as the basis for exploring familial and romantic relationships. But while May encounters rousing success with her (fictitious, unseen) book, Dabis’ picturesque, breezy, ultimately disposable film is a little bit more of a mixed bag.
“Every person is a child at home.”
May in the Summer is the story of prodigal daughter May (Dabis) returning home. The film opens with her bumpy, uneasy flight from New York — where she has become a successful author — to her native Jordan, where she is set to wed fiance Ziad (Alexander Siddig) in one month. She is greeted by her two younger sisters, tomboyish Dalia (Alia Shawkat) and the more stuck-up Yasmine (Nadine Malouf), who have also returned home for May’s wedding. May is going to need all the support she can get because her born-again Christian mother Nadine (Hiam Abbass) has vowed not to attend the ceremony because Ziad is Musilm.
The conflict with her mom notwithstanding, May seems to have everything figured out. (At least compared to her comparatively ne’er do well sisters.) However, it doesn’t take much to start seeing the cracks in May’s seemingly perfect facade. For one, there’s the fact that Ziad chose to join his bride-to-be at a later date rather accompanying her on her long, excruciating flight and family visits. May also seems to be suffering from a wicked case of writer’s block while trying to crank out her follow-up book. Finally, there’s a charming local named Karim (Elie Mitri), who scores points with May by simply listening to her and showing interest in what she has to say. And I haven’t even mentioned her estranged father Edward (Bill Pullman), who seems suddenly eager to make amends with all his daughters nearly a decade after splintering and abandoning his family.
The subject matter is obviously personal to Dabis — more on that in the Special Features section — but the movie ultimately buckles under the weight of too many story lines. May in the Summer could have simply been a movie about how New York writer May feels like a stranger in her own homeland. (Dabis’ biggest stylistic indulgence as a director is shooting May’s periodic jogs through the busy streets of Jordan like they were a slo-mo music video.) The film could have also mainly focused on the issue with her mother — since May is loathe to admit how much the two have in common — or the story of May trying to reconnect with her two sisters. We learn why both Dalia and Yasmine are feeling so adrift and alienated during a bachelorette party jaunt in the Dead Sea.
Each of those plot threads could have supported its own movie. But in May in the Summer they fight a very crowded field for the spotlight; they also make the scenes with Karim — and even the ones with Edward and his pretty new wife/life — feel less than essential.
Not surprisingly, the moments that really spark are the ones that feel most personal and unforced. I’m thinking of the way Nadine talks to May and her other daughters in Arabic, but they all casually respond in English, which is a common occurrence among parents and their more Americanized children. Dabis is at her best when May is clashing with her stubborn hyper-competitive mom (Abbass is terrific as the alternately sharp and aloof woman), or with her two sisters (Shawkat has more to play with as the defensive, abrasive Dalia than Malouf does as seemingly superficial Yasmine). It might be because Dabis directed both Abbass and Shawkat in her previous film Amreeka, and the bond translates onto the big screen.
Dabis herself is often a striking screen presence — which makes her ideal as the family’s successful center of attention — but seems to recede to the background a little too often for someone who is in practically every scene. Part of it is May (and Dabis) being deferential to the more colorful characters surrounding her, but it felt like Dabis should’ve had more command of the screen, even as May was losing control of her life. Pullman is pretty good in his handful of scenes, and it feels like he parachuted into the movie much the same way Edward parachutes into his daughters’ lives.
Meanwhile, the relationship between May and her fiance — purportedly the reason she made this trip in the first place — is given the short shrift in a big way. Having Siddig barely appear in the movie could be seen as an effective way of showing May’s disconnect from Ziad. But it’s impossible to see why these two are together in the first place, which in turn makes it difficult to invest in whether or not May will go through with the wedding.
Rather than exploring May’s cultural and relationship dilemmas with any sort of real profundity, the movie is basically the cinematic equivalent of one of its title character’s glib proverbs. And yet thanks to some personal touches and its exotic setting, May in the Summer still manages to feel like an overall warm and enjoyable experience.
May in the Summer is presented in an aspect ratio of 2.40:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average of 22 mbps. The entire movie is set in Jordan, which results in a bright, earthy HD image. The pops of color mostly come courtesy of May’s eye-catching outfits when she’s turning heads through crowded streets. Somewhat surprisingly, there seems to be finer detail on the wider, panoramic shots of Jordan’s breathtaking scenery than there is during any close-ups. Black levels display nice separation, even though there is visible banding in a few instances. On balance, this attractive HD presentation is a significant part of why this movie is pleasing to watch.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is, curiously enough, not the default track on this disc. The rear speakers are mostly used to bolster Kareem Roustom’s jaunty score — even during an early scene at a bustling airport — although the occasional, subtle ambient noises manage to sneak in during quieter moments. The subs are reduced to a brief cameo during a quick, thumping sequence set at a nightclub. The good news is the dialogue-focused track is balanced quite well and doesn’t every feel puny, even if it feels underused. (The movie is mostly in English, with some occasional Arabic presented with English subtitles.)
All of the bonus material is presented in HD.
Behind the Scenes with Cherien Dabis: (2:09) The filmmaker talks about the real-life inspiration for the story — her parents are Palestinian/Jordanian — and how it’s the inverse of her previous movie. (Amreeka was about what it’s like to be an Arab living in the U.S., whereas May in the Summer has an Americanized protagonist visiting Jordan.) She also discusses the challenges of filming in the buoyant Dead Sea. Dabis covers a lot of ground in a very short amount of time, which only makes you wish this wasn’t the only special feature of substance on this disc.
Production Stills Gallery: (1:40) Basically a fancy slideshow of attractive set photos and promotional stills accompanied by music you can tango to.
At various points, May in the Summer feels like a bunch of other types of movies. (It channels everything from a romantic travelogue to a Woody Allen film.) None of those are likely to stick in your mind for long after the end credits roll, but the filmmaker’s personal connection to the material and the relatively unusual backdrop — Jordan plays an understated, crucial role — make it worth a look.