Whether it’s David O. Russell’s twisted debut, 1994’s Spanking the Monkey, or the Southern drama Junebug in 2005, which marked the arrival of actress Amy Adams, there is a very rich history of films exploring the themes of cultural reassimilation and familial dysfunction at the Sundance Film Festival.
While this film may not belong in such lofty company, May in the Summer, Cherien Dabis’s sophomore feature—and the opening night film of the 2013 Sundance Film Festival—is a welcome entry to that tradition.
May Brennan (Dabis) seemingly has it all. She’s beautiful, intelligent, a successful author, and about to marry Ziad, an accomplished Columbia University professor. A Palestinian, she travels from New York to her hometown to plan her wedding. Things, however, don’t exactly go as planned. Her mother, Nadine (Hiam Abbass), a born-again Christian, doesn’t approve of her daughter marrying a Muslim, while her two younger sisters, party girl Yasmine (Nadine Malouf) and miserly Dalia (Alia Shawkat), are far from a calming influence on her. Meanwhile, her estranged American father, Edward (Bill Pullman), suddenly enters back into the picture and wants to be a part of her life. And she still has a wedding to plan. Pulled in a million different directions, and with the specter of her parents’ failed marriage looming large, May must decide if this is these nuptials are what she really wants or something that merely looks good on paper.
Like Dabis’s debut feature, 2009’s critically acclaimed Amreeka, about a Palestinian family that moves to suburban Chicago shortly after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, May in the Summer seems very personal, offering an insider’s look at life among a Palestinian-Christian family struggling with the rhythms of Westernization. Both of Dabis’s features were developed in the Sundance filmmaker lab in Jordan, according to festival founder Robert Redford, who introduced the film. May in the Summer was also filmed on location in Jordan, and it shows. The film boasts a plethora of beautiful exterior shots, from stars over the desert to the bustling city center.
And Dabis, making her debut in front of the camera, does a fine job anchoring the film as its severely conflicted protagonist. She’s a natural. The supporting cast is aces as well, including Abbass and Pullman as the warring parents, and particularly Shawkat—known for playing Maeby on Arrested Development—as the sassy younger sister, who steals every scene she’s in and provides much of the film’s comedy relief. Although the stakes aren’t incredibly high, Dabis’s May in the Summer is a modest charmer that should attract more than a few converts in art-house theaters and their ancillaries.
The 2013 Sundance Film Festival runs from Jan. 17 to 27 in the mountains of Park City, Utah.