May in the Summer centers on a refreshingly normal middle-class family coming home for a wedding, and the modern locale of Amman, Jordan, and the diversity of its people and settings give the familial dynamics an added interest. The locations are not usually seen in movies, and they contradict the usual negative news items from the region.
Writer/director Cherien Dabis’s debut film Amreeka (2009) was inspired by her family’s Jordanian-American immigrant experiences, and for her second feature, she draws upon her visits home to her mother. Dabis plays May, a successful and beautiful New York City writer who has returned to finish preparations for her wedding to an older, eminent Palestinian expatriate professor.
Most likely defying audience’s expectations, her mother, Nadine (Hiam Abbass), is a nurse and a devout Christian who has not been involved in the plans because she disapproves of the Muslim in-laws and the elaborate nuptials. May’s sisters also return to be her bridesmaids. Tart-tongued Dalia (Alia Shawkat) is going through more than just a college-student’s bicuriosity, and Yasmine (Nadine Malouf, in her assured film debut as a bit of comic relief) is a giggling, boy-crazy Valley Girl type.
The round of reunions and parties (with hangovers) reveals they are a sophisticated, but fractured, family. Their father, Edward Brennan (Bill Pullman), is an American diplomat who has worked with international agencies for years. Since their parents’ long ago divorce, the sisters’ awkward relationship with him has been damaged further by his marriage to a much younger Indian hotel manager, Anu (Ritu Singh Pande), who anxiously tries too hard to be a friendly stepmother. Even as Dalia mocks their father’s “foreign fetish,” their resulting bicultural identity has left them feeling uncomfortable in both the United States and Jordan, let alone for not being fluent in Arabic.
May becomes more and more reluctant to help her mother-in-law plan the wedding, while there’s health crises, coming to gentle terms with feelings, and flirtations that just manage to skirt predictability, including the inevitable handsome temptation for May. From bridal shopping at the Mecca Mall to the colonial-era tennis club, romantic desert star-gazing, and the bachelorette party at a Dead Sea resort, this is a rare and lovely, if mild, view from Jordan.