As soon as acclaimed writer May Brennan (writer/director Cherien Dabis) arrives from New York to her hometown of Amman, Jordan, for her upcoming wedding, it’s clear her carefully laid plans are going to be derailed. For starters, her fiancé Ziad isn’t with her; a distinguished scholar, he had some last-minute work to do and is trailing her by two weeks. This instantly ires May’s Christian mother Nadine (played as a pitch-perfect Old World martyr by Hiam Abbass, of Lemon Tree and The Syrian Bride), making her even more suspect of the man she already disapproves of for being Muslim.
As May and her equally Americanized sisters—giddy, self-absorbed, and confused by May’s apathy—go through the motions of a dress fitting and a bachelorette party at a cheesy resort, May realizes she’s having second thoughts of her own. In one of the film’s most heartfelt moments, she confides her anxiety to one sister as they float in the Red Sea. As May struggles with her ambivalence, matters are made worse by a dramatic encounter with her estranged American father (Bill Pullman) and his young Indian wife, who also live in Jordan. As she’s pulled into the drama of their marriage, it brings back bad memories of her parents’ long-broken relationship, one that Nadine throws in her face as a testament to what happens when you marry outside your culture.
When Ziad (Alexander Siddig) finally shows up, it seems as if her mother’s wishes for her marriage may come true. But Nadine has a secret of her own, one that may disrupt the family more than May’s conflicted heart. The second feature directed by the Oklahoma-born Dabis (after 2009’s Amreeka), May in the Summer has many lovely small moments, and the bright, dry Jordanian backdrop brings her characters’ deep unease into hyper-focus. Though the pace is slow, it mirrors the quiet grappling going on within May’s mind. A striking twist at the end provides much-needed action in this otherwise fine but sleepy, often meandering film. Opens Fri., Sept. 5 at Sundance Cinemas. Rated R. 99 minutes.