Not long after opening on an aerial view of Jordan, May in the Summer settles on the strictly ground-level perspective of its soon-to-be-wed heroine. The eponymous Jordanian-American, who returns to her native land from New York on the occasion of her upcoming nuptials after what seems like a long absence, makes it clear early on that this place is as foreign to her as it is to most others. That she often expresses this reverse culture shock via humor – shortly after landing, she refers to jilbaab-wearing women as “ninjas” for the way only their eyes remain visible beneath their clothing – makes her struggles easier to absorb, but the balance between levity and seriousness Cherien Dabis attempts to strike in her second feature doesn’t always take. Nearly as many jokes fall flat as land, and a few even serve to awkwardly cheapen the situations they’re meant to enliven.
At the heart of May’s struggle is her inability to reconcile her faithlessness with her Christian mother’s fervor—not to mention the fact that her husband-to-be is a (non-practicing, but still) Muslim. Religion in Dabis’s film serves mainly as a source of division rather than unity; May’s secularism is presented as the default position against the irrationality of her hard-liner mother. (Between the Christian-Muslim tension and certain girls’-night-out moments shared between May and her sisters, the film is not unlike Where Do We Go Now? meets Bachelorette—both of which played here at Sundance last year.)
“Can we just chalk this up to some pre-wedding cliche?” May asks at one low point; one could ask the same of her lackadaisical narrative arc, most of which consists of her “finding herself” in entirely unexpected – if not altogether unconvincing – ways. She reconnects with her philandering father, doesn’t entirely reject the attentions of a would-be suitor, and takes in the revitalizing landscape of her homeland with a dual insider-outsider’s perspective. But the tension May’s western affectations cause among the more conservative sect of her family, as with most other narrative threads, doesn’t ultimately amount to much. The drama never fully takes off, and the laughs are too few and far between to offset the film’s fundamental deficiencies. None of this is especially objectionable, but it’s also too sketchily-drawn to register as much more than the sort of brief jaunt that fades from memory as soon as one has returned home.