'Mayday' is a War Movie Full of Whimsy and a Bit Too Much Ambition

Karen Cinorre's film is reminiscent of the work of Wes Anderson but with a violent twist.

Sundance 2021: Mayday
Sundance Institute

Since director Karen Cinorre was a child, she has loved the story of The Wizard of Oz, where a young girl falls into another, mystical world. While in Oz, she goes on a journey where she finds strength in herself before she returns home. Cinorre now takes that story of growth and morphs it into a journey that’s not just about strength but also the importance of sisterhood while coping with trauma. In her feature film debut, Mayday, Cinorre throws the audience into a world where women fight to be in charge.

Ana (Grace Van Patten) is a meek server working in a male-dominated kitchen where she is the target of abuse from her male boss. He calls her names, whispers threats in her ear, and eventually sexually assaults her, all in the name of keeping her in her place. But in a work accident, she is mysteriously transported to another world where women are constantly at war with men who keep falling out of the sky. As she washes up on the rocks of a lush coastline, Ana is rescued by Martha (Mia Goth), who was somehow anticipating Ana’s arrival.

Martha takes Ana to a U-boat base that she shares with Gert (Soko) and Bea (Havana Rose Liu). They are constantly on the lookout for men and lure them in with a mayday signal as their siren song. While Ana begins to fit in with the group and starts learning the act of killing, this lifestyle never really sits well with her. The longer she is in this place, the more she realizes her own confidence and grapples with how Martha’s control is any different from any man’s control.

Mayday is a sun-soaked fairytale about girls trying to fight back against patriarchal control. When Martha takes Ana to their base, they walk through an opening in the vibrant green woods to a rusted motorbike. Ana has walked through a portal into a reality where she can be cared for and understood as an actual human being. In each other they find support and love as they tenderly care for one another in their weakest moments. Ana has finally found a family to call her own.

Ana, Martha, Gert, and Bea all bond over their own personal pain. While their trauma is never explicitly stated, it all stems from horrific experiences with men. Martha erases their memories in an attempt to keep them safe, which keeps them trapped with her. Without that trauma, Gert and Bea are left depending on Martha for comfort and support, as they are nursing emotional wounds they can’t quite remember. Martha collects their trauma not just to protect them, but to hold something over their heads, reminding them what they would be without her.

Martha’s power creates a very obvious hierarchy between herself and the crew; yes, they are free from men but there is still someone in charge. She never sleeps, she keeps them safe, she brought them here, so they owe her their lives. She possesses some greater power that is able to strike fear in people’s hearts. So, Ana wants to challenge this singular murderous vision and find a way to live a life that is permeated with fear. In this world, they must always be on their guard in case a man appears. Even in their happiest moments, there is still an underlying current of tension.

Mia Goth is one stunning ruthless fairy-like woman who has a bubbly personality and a proclivity for violence. She is like Peter Pan as she sweeps traumatized girls away into a place where they can rule. Her wide eyes and sweet voice draw in men who are attracted to her seemingly innocent and helpless nature. But on the flip side, she is full of rage and quickly switches to a menacing, cold leader who won’t take anything less than excellence. Goth is a perfect antagonist with good intentions but cruel execution.

Mayday functions as a pseudo-rape-revenge film where women are getting back at those who have made them feel like nothing. There is a fantastical catharsis to experience in the film in both its violence and the development of Ana’s character. Men are slaughtered and the women cheer at their deaths and see this war as the ultimate act of revenge; it’s time for men to experience the fear that women have experienced every day of their lives.

The use of The Wizard of Oz as inspiration is a great framework to create a new story about a girl’s personal journey to find empowerment. With the help of these three women, Ana is finally able to walk through the world without fear. But, in that road to empowerment are some significant bumps that throw off the audience’s understanding of Mayday’s ploy. Its message about healing is a bit reductive, as trauma doesn’t just magically disappear, and there isn’t enough dialogue that reflects on never-ending dissociation. The world doesn’t always come together because there’s too little explanation for what’s happening. Yet, despite confusing details that don’t always fit together, the atmosphere and love between characters outshine its problems. 

It may have a very on the nose representation of “kill all men and the patriarchy,” but the unique fairy-tale twist helps the material feel fresh. With a purposeful yet shaky landing, Mayday is a strangely adorable take on the war movie. Even if Cironne tries to pack too much lore into a hundred-minute film and ultimately makes trauma reductive, its alluring performances and entrancing world make this a film worth watching.

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Mary Beth McAndrews is a freelance writer and editor based in Washington, DC. She loves all things horror and will defend bad vampire movies until the end of time.