An Arab Novelist Experiences the Trials of Going Home in ‘May in the Summer’

Eastbound and down

Cherien Dabis stars in  May in the Summer.

Cherien Dabis stars in May in the Summer.

“Every person is a child at home,” reads an Arabic saying at the beginning of May in the Summer, Cherien Dabis’ very good second feature, which examines cultural rifts in Amman, Jordan. And in the case of the film’s title character and her eccentric family, this is certainly the case.

(3/4 stars)

Written and directed by: Cherien Dabis
Starring: Hiam Abbas, Cherien Abbas and Bill Pullman
Running time: 99 min.

Ms. Dabis, in her first screen role, plays May, a novelist who has come home to Amman from New York, where she lives, to prepare for her marriage to a professor of Islamic civilization at Columbia University. He’s a catch, by most measures, save for one important caveat: he’s Muslim, a detail May’s mother (Hiam Abbas), a Christian, will ostensibly not put up with. “I don’t have a religion, May, I have the truth,” she says, when May questions her mother’s intolerance.

It’s up to you to decide who is the child in this situation, though it’s probably more complicated than that. May’s mother is not only being stubborn; she’s adhering to tradition. And May, for her part, is having second thoughts about the wedding, as her return to Jordan simultaneously disorients and grounds her. The presence of her estranged father (Bill Pullman, a nice get for a small indie production like this one) and her two sisters—played by Nadine Malouf and Alia Shawkat, both in fine form—pulls her out of the insular New York bubble in which she had been ensconced.

The plot of May in the Summer is thinly autobiographical, which adds a layer of believability. Ms. Dabis, a Palestinian, was raised in Ohio and spent summers in Amman as a child, visiting her grandparents and later, as a teenager, her mother, who moved there when Ms. Dabis’ parents divorced. Her first film, Amreeka (2009), was also based on her own experiences: it looked at a Palestinian family moving to the Midwestern suburbs and all that ensued from the clash of cultures.

As much as May in the Summer is a comedy—May and her mischievous sisters may remind you of The Three Stooges—it is also an intimate and demystifying look at life in Amman, where the movie was actually filmed. The men ogle May like wolves as she goes jogging in tights. A scene in which she shops for lingerie offers a nice riposte to notions of female modesty in Middle Eastern culture. And when May goes to a bro-heavy resort on the Dead Sea for her bachelorette party, the West Bank is visible in the distance. Her sister notes that they could swim there if they wanted to, but May is quick to inform her that mines are in the water. A grim reminder of the permalayer of underlying tension in the region, and how easily it can come to the forefront.

An Arab Novelist Experiences the Trials of Going Home in ‘May in the Summer’