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PARK CITY - If the wedding really is, as certain excitable liberal types will tell you, a fusty tradition increasingly headed for social obsolescence, the movies will hear none of it. Whether in broad Hollywood comedy or finely etched indies, screenwriters seem continually drawn to the tidy structural tension and compressed human emotions brought about by impending nuptials -- as airtight a dramatic excuse as any to combine characters who wouldn't, or shouldn't, ordinarily spend much time together.
So it is with Cherien Dabis's "May in the Summer," a knotty, overwritten, intermittently affecting examination of the silent distances between three apparently devoted sisters reunited for the eldest's wedding, and the more overt parental estrangement that binds them. Arriving three years after "Amreeka," Dabis's acclaimed debut feature about a Palestinian-American family uprooted from the West Bank to Chicago in the wake of 9/11, her sophomore effort -- in which the striking writer-director further burdens herself with the lead role -- once more treads the thematic terrain of East-West (or Middle East-West, to be precise) cultural clashes.
Or so it slyly appears, until Dabis's cluttered, quarrelsome narrative boils down to more universal family sore points than, say, a born-again mom's disapproval of her daughter's Muslim fiance, or two American-Jordanian sisters' petty rivalry over which one speaks better Arabic. ("You're equally shitty," observes their older sister in a dully placating fashion.) For these women, cultural difference has become an alibi for mundane personal frictions. That's the most provocative and self-effacing idea in Dabis's thick-spread script; but it's far from the least subtle, as her characters helpfully restate their personal and spiritual grievances every quarter-hour or so. ("Tell me what you're up to," or some variation thereof, is a line uttered at repeated intervals in the film, and Dabis has little interest in the alternative.)
"I don't have a religion; I have the truth," insists Nadine (Hiam Abbass, here enjoying the chance to be more disagreeable than her gently crinkled beauty generally permits), the recently divorced mother of adult daughters Yasmin (Nadine Malouf), Dalia (Alia Shawkat) and bride-to-be May (Dabis). Living in the mostly Islamic Jordianian capital of Amman, Nadine wears her Christianity as an aggressive badge of pride, threatening even to boycott the inter-faith marriage the young women have returned to Jordan to arrange.
It doesn't take an acquaintance with any god, however, to see that Nadine's fundamentalism is a plea for security in the wake of a traumatic mid-life divorce -- the ramifications of which are further explored by Dabis in the sisters' tetchy reunion with their American father (a surprisingly cast Bill Pullman) and his new, Indian wife (Ritu Singh Pande), who is already suspecting extra-marital activity. None of this family drama exactly warms May's cooling feet ahead of her own (secular) marriage.
Even laying aside the remaining sisters' respective struggles with sex and sexuality, this is a lot of story material, and Dabis -- perhaps distracted by the additional challenge of guiding her own debut performance in the lead, though she's a poised enough presence -- seems undecided on how best to present it. Just as often as the film slips into heightened, almost televisual melodrama, it feigns the frenzied jauntiness of an updated, drastically relocated kind of Philadelphia Story -- and most oddly of all, nothing in the uniformly, sometimes elegantly, wordy writing alerts us to these transitions as much as Carlo Siliotto's bizarrely discordant ethno-sitcom score.
Incongruously heavy-handed comic detailing does little to offset the televisual feel: Nadine's implausible selection of a Handel's Messiah ringtone, for example, is a gag that only further undermine a character whose earnest faith is suggested to be antisocial at best, and absurd at worst. There are echoes of Lebanese multi-hyphenate Nadine Labaki's work here, and not just because Dabis passingly resembles Labaki as an actress: 2011's "Where Do We Go Now?" also attempted to apply a gendered Middle Eastern gaze to mild arthouse comedy, and also came unstuck.
The highs of "May in the Summer" -- even the title, complete with meaningless pun, suggests a smaller screen -- are higher than that fizzless feminist screwball effort, however, not least because Dabis's concessions to the mainstream arguably shadow the characters' own triumphs over self-marginalization. It's not church-related prejudice, in the end, that factors into Nadine's resistance to her daughter's wedding as much as untargeted maternal paranoia. She doesn't have the religion, yet she doesn't have the truth either; the same might be said for this sympathetic but scattered film.
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