Director Cherien Dabis grew up spending summers in Jordan with her mother’s side of the family. Her second feature fictionalizes her experience and translates it into indie-dramedy banalities: May (played by Dabis herself) is a writer spending three weeks in Jordan to plan her upcoming wedding, a pilgrimage that predictably leads to self-discovery, as May, confronted by past and family, begins to question her choices.
Still, Dabis’s film is sneakily radical in its portrayal of female bonds, and of May’s complex relationship to her family’s traditional values: She upsets them by getting engaged to a Muslim but overjoys them by publishing a book on Middle Eastern proverbs. May in the Summer‘s biggest obstacle is Dabis, who isn’t a strong enough actress to sell the subtle humor.
But May’s two younger sisters, Yasmine (Nadine Malouf), a flighty romantic who has just lost her job, and Dalia (Alia Shawkat), a deadpan massage-school dropout, are funny and sympathetic, as is Elie Mitri in the small role of an amiable adventure-tour guide who indulges May’s floundering. Dabis also has a soft spot for scrappy-but-sensitive moms (her first film, Amreeka, followed a Palestinian single mother adjusting to life in the United States), and May’s brusque, intimidatingly devout mother, Nadine (Hiam Abbass), is a peach.
These characters illuminate the broader truths in Dabis’s screenplay, as does its smart treatment of the region’s proximity to armed conflict. One wonderful scene sets the bachelorette party at a Dead Sea tourist trap, where the sisters carp at each other mercilessly until a low-flying aircraft casts the entire resort into silence — a reminder that no family drama, no matter where in the world, exists in a vacuum.