SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL 2021 REVIEW! In the wonderfully strange fantasy feature Mayday, Ana (Grace Van Patten) works as a caterer but is poorly treated when she’s noticed at all. One day a vicious storm opens a portal out of our world, and Ana crawls through an oven into a different place where a militarized team of women defend a beautiful coastline in a time that looks more like WWII, or at least the American military styles of our 1940s. It’s at the same time familiar and alien. We are never told why the war exists or when it might end.
In this strange world, some women live in a rusted-out submarine that washed up on the beach, and like the sirens of The Odyssey, they call out on the radio for assistance, sending out mayday distress calls. Men who respond find no damsels needing rescue, only chaos and their deaths. This murderous band of sisters is led by the vicious and driven Marsha (Mia Goth), who welcomes Ana and trains her as a sniper. As Ana begins to recognize her innate leadership abilities and realizing that in this place, she has both the scope and desire to control her fate, an inevitable rivalry arises between herself and Marsha. They are mostly on duty at night and seem to have free time to swim and train during the day.
The high concept approach to this imaginary world is incredibly detailed in some ways and sorely lacking in granularity in others. The persistent questions of why the women are there, what they are defending, and what the war is about are never answered satisfactorily. Still, the WWII accouterments are beautifully detailed, from radio gear to giant radar displays, to motorcycles and the old submarine. The control room is a vacuum tube fetishist’s delight. Speaking of motorcycles, the mechanic / Jill-of-all-trades who maintains a repair shop some distance from the submarine is played with laconic cool by Juliette Lewis, who we don’t see nearly enough of these days.
Concept and fantasy trappings aside, the fire in Mayday is in the performances. Every role is solidly executed. Of course, the male characters are little more than two-dimensional targets to take out, video-game style, but the female roles all sparkle, with Van Patten and Goth setting the tone perfectly.
“…call out on the radio for assistance…men who respond find no damsels needing rescue, only chaos and their deaths.”
One noteworthy conceit that will put a smile on the faces of anyone who knows the international phonetic alphabet: When a droning voice repeatedly spells out MAYDAY phonetically, the word for the letter “M” has been changed from “Mike” to “Mary” in “Mary Alpha Yankee Delta Alpha Yankee.” Mayday falls somewhere in the intersection between Lord of the Flies, Dunkirk, and Time Bandits. The cinematography of Croatia’s coastline, where it was shot, is fresh and gorgeous, and all the production elements tick along beautifully.
Mayday is rife with metaphorical fodder and comparison/ contrast between how a squad of women would comport themselves in a martial endeavor versus men. In this case, literally versus men, who are the enemy. The gleeful efficiency with which Marsha lures men to their deaths, or kills them outright by cutting their throats, is chilling. Marsha is the power women seek in taking on the patriarchy.
Disappointingly, once the movie settles into its rhythm in the alternate world, it doesn’t use that marvelous engine to take us anywhere. Ultimately, Ana finds she hasn’t the stomach for the killing, and also she asks the same questions the audience does, and her confusion may lead her to find her way back to our dreary, ordinary world. The “real” world haunts her dreams with images of driving in her car and hearing dire warnings on the radio.
Despite the narrative fizzle, the finale brings it home big and keeps the tension pounding until the last moment. Mayday is incredibly ambitious, and while it may have aimed for the stars and missed, it gives us an engrossing sojourn in a new and exciting place that perhaps we will be able to return to someday.
Mayday screened at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
"…the female roles all sparkle, with Van Patten and Goth setting the tone perfectly."