Though the marriage plot, family dramas and personal revelations in May in the Summer are all too familiar, the film about a New York writer who returns to Jordan with her two sisters for upcoming nuptials is still an original and probing work, stoked by a couple of notable performances and that trusty thematic accelerant: cross-cultural tension. It opens this Friday at the Cedar Lee.
It's hard to imagine how May, Yasmine and Dalia Brennan could be less alike. They're the products of a tumultuous marriage between Nadine, an evangelical Christian in a land of Muslims and Jews (Hiam Abass, who retains the solemnity and grace of her performance in 2007's The Visitor but adds some vitriol) and Edward (Bill Pullman), a horny American diplomat prone to heart failure on the tennis court.
May (Cherien Dabis, who also wrote and directed the film) has recently completed a book tour for her successful debut on Arab proverbs, and now finds herself mired in writer's block. Her fitful forays into a new project — literally typing and deleting the first line — are cliche, but are received in good faith as an amplification of her ambivalence about her fiance, the studious Ziad, Columbia University's "Palestine expert," who calmly advises May by phone while May copes in person with her sisters, parents and the elaborate circus of a rushed Islamic wedding.
Nadine doesn't approve of the match, you see. She'd like her daughters to marry good, clean-shaven evangelicals. Nor does anyone in the family especially approve of anyone else. Yasmine (Nadine Malouf) is a party girl who has lately been laid off from her generic office job. Dalia (Alia Shawkat, of TV's Arrested Development) has dropped out of massage school and continues to refute her family's insistence that she's a lesbian. Edward has remarried a young "exotic" from Pakistan, via India, and is having a mysterious affair while trying desperately to repair sundered relationships with his daughters, or at least with May. (Quick aside to say that Shawkat is superb as the spiteful, sardonic youngest sister who can't stomach the sight of her father with his new wife.)
"You could do capacity-building for the embassy," Edward tells Dalia during a high-tension meal. "I know there's a couple spots open. I think you might really enjoy it." She responds, "I think that I, personally, would rather shoot myself in the head." Sounds like the perfect emotional ingredients for a bachelorette party, eh? Secrets and unspoken feelings among the Brennan sisters explode at a Dead Sea resort, while above them a missile careens across the sky.
May in the Summer is indeed a formula film, but it surprises as well, with a few unexpected plot turns and a few very funny moments (most of them engineered by Shawkat) to spice up the rote dysfunctional-family drama. Consider it an analog and appetizer for This is Where I Leave You, out next week.