High off the success of her first book and planning to marry Ziad (Alexander Siddig), her sensible, stable and studious fiance, May Brennan (Cherien Dabis) has it all. At least that's what she'd like people to believe. Reunited with her family in Amman, she's thrust back into the chaos of her former existence. Her headstrong mother Nadine (Hiam Abbass), a born-again Christian disapproves of her Muslim fiance so thoroughly she plans to boycott the wedding. Her younger sisters behave like her children and her estranged father is suddenly and suspiciously interested in making amends. As her wedding day looms, May finds herself more and more confronted by the trauma of her parents divorce. And soon, her once carefully structured life spins hopelessly out of control.
DUBAI INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Having spent the best part of a year accompanying her sophomore feature on the international festival circuit (it opened Sundance, and screened at Venice and London), Arab-American filmmaker Cherien Dabis returns to the UAE, where her 2007 debut short Make a Wish screened to prize-winning acclaim.
The narrative twists prove to be a more mixed bag.
In a concerted move, this welcome follow-up to the 37-year-old’s feature debut, 2009’s Amreeka, mines a similarly tragi-comic vein, albeit with a fresh perspective. Where Amreeka tracked the trials and tribulations of a Palestinian family’s entry into the US, during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, here the sassy, savvy May (Dabis, in her acting debut) is returning home to Jordan, ostensibly to tie the knot. The fact that her fiancé, Palestinian expat Ziad (Alexander Siddig), is reluctant to leave their New York base swiftly establishes May, a successful writer in America, as having conflicted emotions of her own.
Dabis has an undeniable screen presence: a fact amusingly emphasised whenever May takes a morning jog, to slow-mo gawps from Jordanian men. But it is the fabulous Hiam Abbas (previously seen in Dabis’s Amreeka, and Thomas McCarthy’s The Visitor) who all but steals the show. As May’s God-fearing mother, she disapproves of her eldest daughter marrying a Muslim, vowing to boycott the wedding. Her phone carries a loud 'Hallelujah" ring tone. She appears to be working some mysterious voodoo-like spell with a sacred piece of rope. Even her car warns of hellfire and damnation, carrying a 'GC" bumper sticker with the phrase, 'Got Christ? It’s hell without him!"
May’s two younger sisters are independently minded, up to a point. Nadine is a hedonistic hit with the boys, dismissive of her upbringing, while the deliciously dry middle child, Dalia (Alia Shawkat, in the film’s other scene-stealing performance), is struggling with her own sexuality. The three girls clearly love their mother, though, no matter how off-the-wall she may be, still consumed with bitterness after being dumped by their father (Bill Pullman) for a young hotel receptionist.
Technically, Dabis is in good company. While her patchy use of ADR mars the film’s opening sequence – the girls’ initial banter is largely drowned out by traffic – and later jars with what’s on screen, particularly during Pullman’s brief appearances (he evidently wasn’t available to touch up certain scenes), Brian Rigney Hubbard’s photography is effective and evocative. Jordan, particularly Amman, has become increasingly Americanised and we sense this throughout. Kudos, too, to Carlo Siliotto’s playful score, which skips along nicely as the melodrama unfolds. This is a playful romp that skirts the surface of issues rather than examining them in any great detail, and for that it fits well.
When the sisters visit a Dead Sea resort and look across the water to Palestine, we hear of the sobering realities of division within the region (land mines are dotted about on the sea bed, to prevent an influx of refugees, apparently). There’s also a lovely section, where Karim (Elie Mitri), a man May befriends at a local club, takes her out to the desert, to gaze up at the stars and muse about their lives. Both sequences resonate well.
The narrative twists, though, prove to be a more mixed bag. When the girls discover what their mother is really up to, it doesn’t quite ring true (although it’s delivered in such a likeably slapstick fashion that it almost works). Similarly, when Ziad does finally turn up, it’s severely anti-climactic, even lacklustre.
The problem here stems more from May herself, whose character, while clearly urbane and western in outlook, is not sufficiently explored for audiences to connect with her on any level. It can often prove problematic if a filmmaker opts to work on both sides of the camera, particularly if the budget is modest. Given the issues alluded to here, May simply feels underdeveloped, more a character sketch of sorts, particularly next to two feisty siblings and a ferocious mother.
Dabis herself resides in New York City but visits Jordan often (she was born in Nebraska and grew up in Ohio; her mother recently returned home to Jordan, 25 years after reluctantly emigrating). The language in the film is also keep almost exclusively English, to reflect the linguistic preference of modern Jordanians. But the parallels between the writer-director-actor and her on-screen persona, while they might emphasise internal conflict on paper, don’t translate on screen as they should.
While in Dubai, Dabis announced plans to shoot her next feature in Arabic (there’s also an American existential romance in the works, apparently). Whether this refocuses her art or not, one only hopes she doesn’t try to do it all, as she does has done here. This second feature is very watchable, but it lacks a sense of purpose (so prevalent in its predecessor), and any emotional punch or, indeed, pay-off.