May Cause Drowsiness, by David Bax
It’s almost irresistibly tempting to describe Cherien Dabis’ May in the Summer as a female Garden State or a Jordanian Home for the Holidays and call it a day. Of course, being so reductive would be irresponsible and lazy. Yet it wouldn’t be that much less effort than Dabis appears to have put into crafting her story.
In addition to writing and directing, Dabis stars as May, an accomplished author who is returning to her childhood home in Jordan to marry, Ziad (Alexander Siddig), a New York professor who is apparently from the region as well. Her two sisters, Yasmine (Nadine Malouf) and Dalia (Alia Shawkat), have also arrived and all three have packed plenty of emotional baggage. May is unsure she wants to wed Ziad; Yasmine has recently lost her job and is rudderless; Dalia may be struggling to come out of the closet. Meanwhile, May’s Christian mother, Nadine (Hiam Abbass) sternly disapproves of her daughter marrying the Muslim Ziad. And the women’s father, Edward (Bill Pullman), is attempting to reinsert himself into their lives, as is his oversharing new wife, Anu (Ritu Singh Pande).
With so much going on, it would seem to take a strong will on Dabis’ part to make the movie boring. Still, she persists and succeeds. There are far too many dead spaces in which people look at each other or at nothing at all without saying much. Whatever Dabis may hope the audience will project into these moments, she could have made better use of them by injecting a joke or some color that filled in her characters beyond the outlines on the audition listing. But May’s suffocating glumness spreads like an infection over the rest of her family.
There’s fertile ground here, which makes it all the more frustrating that Dabis does so little with it. A family reunited after years apart, all of whom have changed to various extents in the interim; the frictions and explorations should be enough to support a television series. Confoundingly, Dabis makes all her characters too polite to argue. The whole movie is a simmer that never gives way to a boil, with the exception of one sequence that only highlights how lifeless the rest of the film is in contrast. Just over halfway through the movie, May and a friend play tennis while she, both verbally and internally, seems to debate with herself about whether she wants to get married. The literal and metaphorical volleys fill the scene with vigor and tension. But it’s the only time in which the countdown to the ceremony actually works as the ticking time-bomb it’s designed to be.
By the time the characters do finally say the things that have been dormant in their minds the whole time, it’s too late. The life has gone out of the picture. When one of May’s sisters opens up to her and reveals the truths she has been keeping hidden, May looks away and responds, “I haven’t been able to write in months.” If the protagonist doesn’t even care, why should we?