On paper, there’s a lot to like about “May in the Summer.” It was written and directed by a woman, which is an anomaly, but it’s also about the complicated inner-workings of distinct female characters and takes place in Amman, Jordan. It even passes the Bechdel Test, which is a ridiculously easy metric that most movies nevertheless fail: It has at least two female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man.
Given how underrepresented women are in Hollywood, it’s understandable to want to root for “May in the Summer.” But a movie has to be more than a hopeful symbol of progress, and this one only sporadically lives up to the promises of a good cast and a filmmaker, Cherien Dabis, who won over critics and festival crowds five years ago with the drama “Amreeka.”
The story revolves around May (Dabis, in her acting debut). An Amman native with a Jordanian-Christian mother and an American father, she now lives in New York, working as a writer. When she returns to her home town for her wedding, to a Palestinian also from Jordan, she spends time with her opinionated sisters and divorced parents. Her mother, who blatantly disapproves of the marriage, doesn’t plan to attend the ceremony. But, does May want to get married? That remains unclear, even to her.
This has the makings of a good story, and it’s an appropriate time (as always) to look at the cultural and religious discrimination in the Middle East. But Dabis made a misstep in casting herself in the lead role, despite her movie-star looks. Although she warms up to the part by the movie’s end, her sometimes wooden delivery can be distracting, and her demeanor tends to be inscrutable. The best actors manage to convey a lot with just a look, but Dabis isn’t there yet. Meanwhile, her attempt to conjure the giddy absurdity of drunkenness — a notoriously tall order for an actor — falls flat.
But she has her moments. In one of the most memorable scenes, May and her sister, Dalia (Alia Shawkat), float in the Dead Sea while having a heart-to-heart. It’s beautifully filmed, and the conversation feels real. Across the sea, May says, people are at war, while here, her big life decisions revolve around whether to get a band or a DJ for her wedding reception.
Along with Shawkat, the rest of the casting is exceptional. Bill Pullman plays the girls’s absentee father, turning a deadbeat dad into a likable guy, and their mother, Nadine, is played by Hiam Abbass. She may be the most interesting character in the movie. A devout Christian who has been alone since her husband left her for a younger woman, she doesn’t quite know what her purpose is. So she spends her days cooking for her daughters and working on untying a giant knot, which May believes is some kind of jinx on her upcoming nuptials.
The movie slips in some thought-provoking themes, including a certain solipsism as every character harbors secrets from the others. But neither the idea that only we know ourselves, nor the timely plot thread about Nadine’s religious intolerance, feels thoroughly explored. It’s diverting to watch and has moments of brilliance, but even with all its refreshing female characters, “May in the Summer” doesn’t leave a lasting impression.
★ ★ ½
R. At Angelika Pop-Up at Union Market. Contains strong language. In English and Arabic with subtitles. 99 minutes.