Cherien Dabis' 2009 directorial debut "Amreeka" followed a family of Palestinian immigrants trying to make do with life in suburban America. Her follow-up, the substantially more polished and enjoyable "May in the Summer," tackles the inverse premise: A high-minded New Yorker dealing with a vastly different world while visiting her family in Jordan. Unlike "Amreeka," however, "May in the Summer" focuses less on culture clashes than the universal cycles of familiar problems that transcend cultural specifics. With its pre-wedding jitters plot, the movie hails from a well-worn tradition, but Dabis manages to shake up conventions with her fresh setting while sticking to familiar ground.
In the starring role as the titular May, Dabis plays a rising author engaged to a Palestinian professor from Columbia University. While her fiancé remains back home to teach, the source of much consternation for the couple, May heads to Jordan to visit her family and make tentative preparations. Instead, she encounters a series of hurdles, starting with her evident wet feet over going through with the plan. The situation is quickly worsened by a vow from her born-again Christian mother (a terrifically stern Hiam Abbas) not to attend her daughter's wedding because of her fiancé's Muslim background (May's assertion that her husband-to-be is actually an atheist doesn't help).
Meanwhile, May's two youngest sisters press her for details about her hesitations and face their own hurdles: The snarky Dahlia (Alia Shawkat), a "massage school dropout," may have secrets of her own regarding her sexuality, while Yasmine (Nadine Malouf) engages in constant squabbling with her well-intentioned boyfriend while rebuffing her older sibling's attempts to offer advice. Further complicating matters, the sisters' estranged father (Bill Pullman, in a small but more focused performance than he's delivered in years), a savvy political operative, attempts to help them land jobs while inadvertently digging up memories of their parents' divorce with his latest bout of infidelity.
May veers from one spat to another, but the movie continually avoids excessive plot development, settling for a slice-of-life approach. Both unhurried and slickly produced, it echoes Hollywood tropes without overplaying them. In a lesser project, the arrival of the suave Karim (Elie Mitri), whom May meets outside a bar and engages in an ongoing friendship that frequently threatens to turn into something more, might form the pivotal development that forces May to reconsider her plans. Instead, he's one of many fragmentary encounters that swirl about her chaotic trip, as Dabis smartly favors atmosphere over a clean series of circumstances.
Its storytelling alone makes "May in the Summer" stand out from the industry standard for this form of pre-wedding drama, but the movie also impressively avoids making a big deal out of its milieu. The presence of old world values and Middle Eastern strife only occasionally comes into play as one of many organic forces intrinsic to the environment. In one telling moment, a pithy squabble between the sisters is interrupted when a low-flying fighter jet passes overhead, but it mainly serves to place the superficial nature of their argument in context.
More than anything else, "May in the Summer" holds together due to its committed lead performance. Dabis, making her acting debut, comes across as aggressively confident onscreen as she is behind it. A vast improvement over the transparent talking points pertaining to culture clashes in "Amreeka," Dabis' latest work maintains a breezy flow that roots its issues in relatable struggles that defy the particulars of the backdrop. Still, Dabis maintains a terrific sense of place, letting images breathe: An early morning desert shot that finds May gazing into eternity puts her frustrations in a far better context than any nuggets of advice from her parents or the countless witty asides from her sisters.
With its central dramas already in flux before the movie starts, Dabis leaves much unresolved. While the story runs slightly longer than it should and not every sad-faced monologue connects to the bigger picture, "May in the Summer" takes its genre roots seriously with underplayed comedy and drama alike. "I don't need labels," says one character, and Dabis must feel the same way. One could pigeonhole "May in the Summer" as a Jordan-set chick flick, but it's so much better than any given category applied to it.
Criticwire grade: A-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Reasonably well-received on the opening night of the Sundance Film Festival, the movie seems likely to land a home with a midsize theatrical distributor able to play up its commercial genre ingredients along with the distinctive setting that shakes them up. A solid theatrical audience beyond the festival circuit is a definite possibility.