There’s a scene in Cherien Dabis’s semi-autobiographical May in the Summer in which three Jordanian-American sisters take a weekend excursion to the Dead Sea to celebrate the impending wedding of May (Dabis). Poolside lounging gives way to arguing, with Yasmine (Nadine Malouf) pressing May to confess that she’s considering canceling her nuptials and pressing Dalia (Alia Shawkat) to confront her sexuality. Finally, a fed-up Dalia screams, “I’m not a lesbian!” This exchange reduces the sisters to being the awkward center of attention of everyone around them, evoking the cringe-inducing payoff of so many bad comedies. But then, in an awe-inspiring moment that transcends their petty squabbling, a fighter jet roars by overhead, flying toward occupied Palestine just across the water. Embedded throughout May in the Summer are occurrences such as this, self-examination drowned out by the thunder of a never-ending conflict, and had the whole film been made in its image it might have truly captured how the pervasiveness of the region’s holy war informs even the most personal dilemmas.
May arrives home in Amman to prepare for her nuptials, only to find her mother, Nadine (Hiam Abbass), a devout born-again Christian, expressing disapproval toward her daughter’s fiancé, Zaid (Alexander Siddig), because he’s Muslim. That he’s secular is irrelevant because, in her eyes, religion is less about how its practiced than it is a defining symbol. Nadine claims that interfaith unions can’t work and points to her divorce from May’s absentee American father, Edward (Bill Pullman), as proof. The older woman’s idolatry is intended as the film’s foremost source of friction, yet we never quite get to feel its full weight.
Essentially, Dabis yearns to funnel a perceptive grappling with politics of faith through the framework of a culture-clash comedy, and while she articulates wonderful moments of low-key observation, particularly in the droll and contentious relationship between May and her sisters, she’s less successful connecting May’s marital crisis to the rumblings of her repressed heritage. May’s supposed route to the dawn of self-discovery is written in rote Hollywood formula: meeting a tall dark stranger (Elie Mitri) who elicits romantic tingling; confronting her father’s failings; and, in one sequence that feels trucked in from a much dumber movie, secretly tailing her mom like a terrible P.I. to uncover a limp secret. At the same time, we learn May doubted the marriage before touching down in the Middle East, undermining the entire idea that this journey to her homeland is specifically what spurs her uncertainty. Despite the fit her mother throws, Zaid’s being a Muslim ultimately is less of a problem than May’s own confusion and emotional fragility. This isn’t a question of culture, just a matter of cold feet.