Writer-director Cherien Dabis adds actress to her skill-set with Sundance opening-nighter “May in the Summer,” her follow-up to her first 2009 film “Amreeka.” In both films Dabis takes her singular experience as an Arab American to reveal how complicated living between cultures can be.
This whip-smart writer-director-actress effortlessly carries this story of a conflicted young writer who is unsure of whether to go forward with marrying the man she loves, a Muslim New York professor (Alexander Siddig). Ahead of the wedding, she stays with her Christian mother (Hiam Abbas) in Amman, Jordan, along with her two fractious younger sisters. May jogs along the road, jeered at by cars full of men; family relationships get more and more challenging as she and her sisters reconnect with their estranged father, an American diplomat (Bill Pullman) who has remarried a younger woman.
Dabis shows how difficult it is to be part of a cross-cultural couple, no matter how old you are. The movie is gorgeously shot and framed, with several haunting set-pieces: the three girls swimming in the Dead Sea with Palestine across the water, which is seeded with mines; the sisters talking to each other against a moonlit window; May sleeping under the stars in the desert, which is also stunning in the morning; and a group of people hanging by a poolside hotel who freeze in their tracks when a deafening fighter jet roars overhead. Dabis has chops. Judging from the early reviews below, this film will play best for specialty audiences, especially women.
Dabis talked at a Columbia University panel last year about how tough it was to mount this film without compromising. She asked, “do you kill your film to get it made?” She raised Sundance lab film “Amreeka”‘s micro-budget from various foundations as well as the Middle Eastern community. The film played the director’s fortnight at Cannes and won the FIPRESCI prize.
Dabis has worked as a staff writer on “The L Word.” “The second movie is a bitch,” she said at the panel. She wasn’t expecting to have to go through the same trouble all over again raising financing. “I have to accept that it’s never going to be easy, it is what it is, and keep going.” She got it done.
Here’s a Sundance opening night review round-up:
Having explored a Palestinian woman’s difficulty assimilating into U.S. culture in her winning 2009 debut, “Amreeka,” writer-director Cherien Dabis flips the script to more ambitious but less satisfying effect in “May in the Summer.” Observing the upheaval that ensues when an Arab-American bride-to-be returns to the family homestead in Amman, Jordan, this warmly conceived but largely formulaic picture is by turns sensitive and shrill, culturally perceptive and overly broad in its dysfunctional-family melodramatics. Easy-viewing arthouse audiences should find “Summer’s” combo of accessible, femme-centric material and exotic environs to their liking.
The delicate humor, strong sense of cultural identity and deep affection for her characters that distinguished Cherien Dabis’ Amreeka are again in evidence in her second feature, May in the Summer. But while there’s much to enjoy here – particularly in the touching performance of Hiam Abbass – there’s also plenty that is clichéd and forced in this rather conventional story of a young American-Jordanian woman hesitating on the precipice of marriage.
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… 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.
Get ready for “My Big Fat Jordanian Wedding,” or don’t, because “May in the Summer” is probably not coming soon to a theater near you. Writer-director Cherien Dabis, the star of this sort-of romcom/sort of drama, has the face and figure of a runway model. Unfortunately, she also has the acting ability of one, displaying little affect in this dreary culture clash.