A second feature is often about risk. Cherien Dabis‘s first film, Amreeka, is an almost archetypal example of the debut America indie hit. It premiered at Sundance, gathered some excellent reviews and picked up three Independent Spirit Award nominations. The touching and occasionally quite funny story of an immigrant Palestinian Christian single mother living with her sister’s family in Illinois, it made for a charming arrival. Its success also challenges Dabis to do something different the second time around, to take a few risks and make the case that her style is versatile beyond the borders of light-hearted suburban social commentary.
May in the Summer certainly tries to be a leap forward. Dabis’s most perilous choice was to cast herself in the lead role despite having no prior film acting experience. She plays May, the daughter of a devout Palestinian Christian woman (Hiam Abbass) and a somewhat flippant American diplomat (Bill Pullman). They’re unhappily, bitterly divorced. They raised their children in the United States, but both currently live in Amman. May lives in New York, but she’s returned to the Jordanian capital to plan her wedding to Ziad (Alexander Siddig), a Columbia professor. He’s Muslim, which horrifies her mother. The narrative stems from this conflict, with May’s two sisters Yasmine (Nadine Malouf) and Dalia (Alia Shawkat) along for the ride.
On top of that religious conflict, May is having second thoughts for entirely different reasons. Dabis’s script tries to use this tension to build a complex interior landscape for its protagonist. The problem is that she doesn’t quite have the acting chops to pull it off herself. She has trouble expressing May’s reticence, the subtleties of a woman going through the motions of anger at her mother and love for her fiancé. Instead of the unconsciously false words of a conflicted woman, Dabis’s performance mostly feels like bad line reading. Dabis does develop an interesting and wide-eyed confidence in the film’s final act, but that is too little too late.
Moreover, at times it feels like the script is written to cushion its director/star from potentially hazardous scenes. Heavy moments are masked. One particularly crucial scene toward the end of the film is avoided entirely, postponing and then simply dispensing with the long-awaited payoff of Siddig’s performance. Sometimes this strategy of elision comes off well, particularly in a scene when all three sisters’ concerns are coming to a head at a Dead Sea resort. The argument builds until they shout accusations at each other in the midst of a relaxing crowd. Then, suddenly, a plane flies overhead. It’s a vague but chilling reminder of the physical strife in the region, just over the water. It also creates an interesting tableau, one of the film’s strongest images.
On the whole, though, Dabis chooses to cover for her casting gamble by avoiding narrative and stylistic risks. Abbass and Shawkat are both excellent, as they were in Amreeka, but their characters are both a bit underwritten. The film is broken up by Arabic proverbs, used as chapter titles. This mirrors the book that May has ostensibly just written, a collection of essays using these proverbs to explore daily life in the Middle East. Some of them ring true but others seem forced into the script as a quick way to provide structure. This is another Sundance movie about a writer, struggling to find deeper meaning by examining the self-made problems of the anxious creative-type. At the end of the day the risk of casting herself becomes a strangely safe choice, one that prevents the story itself from pursuing more daring themes.
The Upside: Fans of Alia Shawkat and Hiam Abbass will be pleased to see two more excellent supporting turns from the actresses, further making the case that both of them should get better material.
The Downside: By casting herself in the lead role, Cherien Dabis both exposes her own acting weaknesses and gives her reason to soften a script that could have been much more interesting.
On the Side: Dabis will also star in Villa Touma, the new film by director Suha Arraf, to premiere at the Venice Film Festival later this month.