May in the Summer (2013)
Directed by: Cherien Dabis | 99 minutes | comedy, drama | Actors: Hiam Abbass, James Garson Chick, Cherien Dabis, Alaadin Khasawneh, Nadine Malouf, Elie Mitri, Ritu Singh Pande, Bill Pullman, Nasri Sayegh, Alia Shawkat, Alexander Siddig, Laith Soudani
What is it like to be an Arab in America? Cherien Dabis experiences it firsthand. The filmmaker has a Palestinian father and a Jordanian mother, but she herself was born in Omaha, Nebraska and grew up in a small town in Ohio. Over the summer, the family spent weeks visiting relatives in Jordan, so she had the best of both worlds. “When we came home from the Middle East, people in Ohio would ask if there were any cars and telephones in Jordan,” she recalls her childhood. When the Gulf War broke out in the early 1990s, her father – who earned a living as a doctor – lost countless patients, her mother was called ‘Arab bitch’ and the family was threatened. The weirdest rumors were circulating about her family. It was during that time – Cherien was in her mid-teens – that she said she experienced an identity crisis and became aware of the fact that she was an “Arab in America”. A ‘state of mind’ that strengthens her desire to make films, because the media did not paint a correct picture of ‘her’ population group. That had to change, and the best way to do that is through film. “Because with films you can make a statement much more clearly than through politics.” Because she has known both American and Arab influences in her upbringing, she believes she can offer a unique perspective in her films. Not surprisingly, much of Cherien’s work is autobiographical.
Cherien’s second feature film after ‘Amreeka’ (2009), about an Arab in the US, is ‘May in the Summer’ (2013, about an American in the Middle East). She wrote the screenplay, directed and also stars May Brennan, a New York-based young woman who recently released her first book. It was a resounding success, and she’s also about to tie the knot with Ziad (Alexander Siddig), a respected academic. On the face of it, May has it all sorted out. But isn’t that mainly what she wants the outside world to believe? In the run-up to the wedding, she flies to her family in the Jordanian capital Amman, where chaos reigns as she knows it from the past. As an Arab Christian, her mother Nadine (Hiam Abbass) does not like the idea of her eldest daughter marrying a Muslim and certainly does not hide her opinion. In fact, she is so dismissive of the marriage that she threatens to boycott it. May’s younger sisters Dalia (Alia Shawkat) and Yasmine (Nadine Malouf) are only busy with their sister’s bachelorette party and act like little children. And then her estranged father Edward (Bill Pullman) suddenly reappears. He and Nadine have been separated for years and Edward is now married to the much younger Anu (Ritu Singh Pande), but there is still a lot of old pain. As the big day approaches, May’s doubts grow about the impending wedding. Not least because of her budding friendship with the attractive Karim (Elie Mitri).
‘May in the Summer’ is a light-hearted but warm family drama, with sympathetic characters and a pleasant ‘vibe’. The strength of this film is also its shortcoming: ‘May in the Summer’ has no real highlights. The drama never falters and the humor is too subtle to really leave a mark on the film. The characters are richly sketched, but the story never really goes into depth. The ending is quite corny and unfortunately not entirely satisfying. The charm of ‘May in the Summer’ lies in the cast, which ensures that the various characters, despite their quirks, come to live for us. Especially Hiam Abbass is a feast to watch. As the stubborn but loving Nadine, who struggles with her own emotions and past events, the experienced Israeli-Arab actress forms the soul of the film. And then the film can also rely on a beautiful cinematography by Brian Rigney Hubbard, who can be hired by the tourist office of Jordan to make tourist promotion films of the Middle Eastern country. The desert, the dead sea and the great city; they all pop off the screen. Moreover, Hubbard also knows how to make visible the contrast with the US, as May herself must feel.
Entertaining, well acted and beautiful to look at, that’s for sure ‘May in the Summer’. Without actually digging deep, Cherien Dabis manages to touch her audience with a light-hearted family drama. Although the story is too fleeting and too little spoken to linger long.