Ana’s (Grace Van Patten) restless sleep is punctuated with all sorts of strange things: nightmares about endless tunnels, worryingly quiet men, vintage bombers laden with airmen, and a clear voice spelling out “M A Y D A Y” via the phonetic alphabet. But all that, strange as it may seem, is at least better than her real life, complete with a dead-end catering job and a sense of invisibility that’s not only in her head. In Karen Cinorre’s fantastical, feminist “Mayday,” Ana shrugs off her earthbound existence for something that, at first, seems like her ticket to fulfillment and happiness. But thorny questions persist, even in the most compelling of dreamscapes, and while Van Patten and standout co-star Mia Goth are up to the task of going where blunt material takes them, an unexpected restraint keeps “Mayday” from really breaking free.
Ana’s life in a sterile seaside town isn’t a happy one, and when Cinorre’s feature debut opens, she’s starting another day that seems destined to be just like the ones before it. Still, there are people in her life who care about her, like her kind co-workers Dimitri (Théodore Pellerin) and Max (Zlatko Buric), even if others treat her as someone who is, at best, invisible to them. At worst, Ana — like so many women — is looked at as something to be used, abused, discarded. She knows it, too.
But one weather-related accident and an escape through an unexpected portal later, and Ana is transported to a windswept beach where the giddy Marsha (Mia Goth) has long been expecting her. Much of Ana’s memory has been wiped clean — but not all of it — but her audience will easily recognize how the same people who populated her “real” life have now snuck into her dreamy (or is it a dream?) one. Goth, turning in one of her best performances to date, first appears as a terrified bride, forced to “celebrate” her nuptials at Ana’s catering hall, and is reimagined as a brash leader eager to pull Ana into her world.
What follows is an ambitious mashup of “Peter Pan” and “The Wilds,” “Shadow in the Cloud” and “Lord of the Flies,” as the skittish Ana is soon pulled into a forever war in which Marsha is queen bee. Initially offering an alluring combination of off-kilter reverie and blunt worldview, Cinorre spends the film’s first act cleverly laying out the rules of “Mayday.” Marsha has “saved” other girls before, including Gert (Soko, who also appears at the festival in “The Blazing World,” another off-kilter feminist fairy tale) and Bea (newbie Havana Rose Liu), and they now spend their time waging battles against the men they ensnare in their war games.
“Mayday’s their favorite, can’t resist a damsel in distress,” Marsha winks at Ana as she feeds fake coordinates to airmen who pick up their distress signals, sending them straight into both bad weather and their mortal demise. It’s a revenge drama through the prism of the kind of coming-of-age fantasy normally reserved for the younger set, a daring twist on an old formula, and one that mostly works for the film’s first half. And yet, as far as “Mayday” is willing to take things at first — put it this way: if you’re a man and you land on their island, nothing will save you a bloody demise — as it hits its most provocative notes, a strange reserve sets in.
Cinorre manages to thread a tricky tone throughout, and even as the blood keeps flowing and the dares get darker, the film maintains a dreamy disconnect. It’s not exactly a safe space to play in, but it’s a heightened one with its own laws, even as many of them start to crumble as it further unfolds. (Of note: if nothing else, Cinorre should direct a musical next.) Despite a rigid, smart setup, “Mayday” sloughs off its sharper elements with increasing regularity. Some of the lines, especially those given to Goth, are a bit on the nose — “You’ve been in a war your entire life, you just didn’t know it,” “Girls are better off dead, because now we’re free,” etc. — but the actress’ unique blend of effervescence and acuity help them go down.
The twists that follow aren’t nearly as unexpected as what led to them, and that Marsha’s bloody idyll can’t last forever comes as a shock to no one. Even in a world of their own making, one dedicated to enacting revenge on the people who have hurt them the most, Ana and Marsha can never be free of the bad guys (emphasis on the guys of it all). As more men keep coming, alliances shift, and Ana’s soft heart (and her lingering memory of the men who did treat her with care) threaten to derail Marsha’s craziest ideas.
Despite its more blunt ideas, Cinorre’s own tenderness shifts “Mayday” into more conventional territory, but her strong grasp of world-building and even better knack for casting are harbingers of her talent. Next time, perhaps, she’ll be willing to take her ambition to even bolder ends.
“Mayday” premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival in the U.S. Dramatic Competition Section. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.