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.
A New York-based scribe with a successful book of modern Arabic proverbs under her belt, May Brennan (Dabis) arrives in Jordan ahead of her similarly accomplished writer fiance, Ziad, to prepare for their upcoming nuptials. Although she’s greeted warmly at first by her mother, Nadine (Hiam Abbass), and two younger sisters, Yasmine (Nadine Malouf) and Dalia (Alia Shawkat), it doesn’t take long for past and present resentments to surface.
Nadine, a strict born-again Christian, disapproves of Ziad’s Muslim background and refuses to attend the wedding. She also nurses a grudge against the girls’ father, Edward (Bill Pullman), a rakish American expat with a clear weakness for foreign women, having thrown Nadine aside for a much younger wife (Ritu Singh Pande). On top of all this, May harbors her own doubts about the wedding, exacerbated not only by the attentions of a local nice guy (Elie Mitri), but also by her increasingly quarrelsome relations with her sisters, who have personal issues of their own to resolve.
Dabis’ script has a messy, close-to-home quality born of an honest affection for her characters, as well as a determination to illuminate the universal frustrations of family life in this highly specific setting. At a certain point, one begins to lose track of all the various forms of culture clash being explored here: rifts between parents and children; differences of ethnicity, religion and gender; the unique challenges facing a biracial family in a Mideast nation with an ever-growing Western influence. Simple details and gestures add texture and authenticity to this cross-cultural portrait, as when Nadine gives May a bowl of lentil soup as a peace offering, or when May goes running in T-shirt and shorts as more conservative locals look on.
Still, for every moment that feels pleasantly eye-opening, there’s a scene that achieves the reverse by straining for comedic or dramatic effect, pushing the material into alternately soapy and sitcomish territory. A bachelorette-party excursion to the Dead Sea ends, predictably, in an over-the-top screaming match capped by a heavy-handed reminder of much weightier conflicts playing out in the Middle East. About Nadine’s attempts to rekindle romance in her life, the less said the better. The extreme swings from farce to melodrama are clumsily pushed along by a jaunty accordion-dominated score.
Brian Rigney Hubbard’s scenic widescreen lensing should do Jordan’s tourism board nothing but favors, and certain scenes are deliberately framed in long shot so as to show off sun-drenched landscapes and dusky beaches to their best advantage. The question likely to divide audiences is whether the film’s eye-opening locales and cultural context redeem the blandness of the story, or whether a place that has been explored relatively rarely onscreen demands a bolder, less conventional approach.
A tall, coltish beauty making her bigscreen acting debut, Dabis acquits herself well with a lead performance that avoids the vanity-project trap, unleashing an honest whirlwind of emotions as May moves from a posture of liberal Western superiority to genuine uncertainty and anguish over the future. She achieves a complex and moving rapport with Abbass, who shakes off the script’s fundamentalist-Christian stereotyping to movingly present Nadine as a beautiful, strong-willed woman dissatisfied with her lot in life.
Dabis’ helming shows appreciable growth in confidence and scale from “Amreeka”; the group dynamics are well composed and adroitly orchestrated, and the production has a more professional sheen, complete with tennis-match montages and wedding-decoration sequences that would feel right at home in a studio romantic comedy.