Sundance Film Festival Review: Mayday is a wonderfully unique, genre-shifting ode to female resilience

Do you know how it feels to describe a dream? A moment where you are not really sure what you just witnessed and yet you remember seeing certain things and oddly enough, you remember feeling everything about it? That is basically how it feels like watching Mayday, the feature-length directorial debut by writer/director Karen Cinorre. It is the kind of film that is best experienced without any prior knowledge of the plot and is best felt rather than just be seen.

Expectations for this film are quite high when it premiered at Sundance. With a massive well of young talent in the cast and acclaimed film crew like cinematographer Sam Levy and musician/composer Colin Stetson and a simple yet illusory premise, Mayday sounds like it could be a real contender as it is up in the U.S Dramatic Competition category. Does the film live up to the hype?

Grace Van Patten stars as Ana, a waitress who is at a moment in her life where she feels downtrodden by the people and the environment around her. Her workplace reeks of toxicity to the furthest edge that her boss sexually assaults her. Reaching her lowest point, a tumultuous storm occurs, which brings the workplace into a short circuit.

By some strange coincidence, Ana is mysteriously transported to a secluded island populated by female soldiers, led by the sharpshooter Marsha (Mia Goth). In this world, people are in an ongoing war and the men are faced with the dark truth seething in the women; the fact that they are more than just mere vessels to be played with.

During her stay with Marsha and her comrades including the headstrong Gert (a convincingly stoic SoKo, who has played a soldier before in The Stopover, by Muriel Coulin and Delphine Coulin) and the spirited Bea (an enthusiastic Havana Rose Liu), the four women form a powerful, comforting camaraderie while Ana trains to be a sharpshooter. But over time, she starts to realize the deeper meaning of her place on the island, which may not be what her friends have expected and time is running out for her as the opportunity to travel back home slowly slips away.

The synopsis may sound vague yet familiar but the storytelling makes the film feel singular in how the film crew manage to take well-worn genre tropes and assemble a story that makes them feel fresh again. Cinnore establishes the world with fantastic economy and all the characters are developed in distinct ways via quick moments of interplay and a few focused character moments. The characterizations are indeed those we have seen before but it is due to the efforts from Cinorre and the actresses that they are able to stand out as much as they do here.

With the taciturn Ana who has been pushed into a corner, the forceful Marsha who will not take no for an answer, the level-headed Gert who has been through her fair share of burdens and the outgoing Bea who is blissfully in denial by her own volition; Cinorre takes her time in building up the shared sisterhood relationship here and it is remarkably felt.

It also helps that the cast here is packed with rising talent and they all make their mark. Van Patten has made standout work in her appearances in films like The Meyerowitz Diaries and Good Posture. In Mayday, she delivers great work as Ana. She makes the character arc flow smoothly as she goes from self-institutionalized to empowered to almost obsessed without losing an ounce of humanity, even when the role calls for her to be reactionary for half of the film.

Goth needs no introduction for her stellar work ever since she has delivered fantastic work in Nymphomaniac and had gone into great films like High Life, Suspiria and Emma. Here in Mayday, she gives a stellar performance in the role of Marsha. Her portrayal of seething anger and whimsicality that borders on obsession (without veering into histrionics) is initially inviting, gradually imposing and in the end sympathetic. Her moment in the third act where she proclaims that being a hero in her world is the same as being a psychopath hits hard considering the hardships that the women go through.

The supporting characters are minor in screentime but they make a positive impression that gradually reveal the deeper levels in the narrative as well as the character arc of Ana i.e Zlatko Buric’s appearance is implied as a paternal presence while Juliette Lewis’ appearance is one that is world-weary of the world around her.

The fantasy mechanics are laid out in both visually and aurally stimulating ways that exceed its budget constraints – the use of the night sky, flashing lights in the use of technology, distress calls, the use of NATO language, the scenes set in the water etc. – without the need for excessive exposition that would otherwise plague films that delve into fantasy. They are utilized not as bells and whistles but are thematically powerful in highlighting the conflicts and the stakes of the story i.e. the use of stars leads to a beautifully cathartic moment on female solidarity.

The way Cinnore imbues her story with powerful themes that highlight the female human condition — eg. The feeling of liberation, empowerment, complicity, denial, togetherness, wish fulfilment, hard-hitting reality and differing points-of-view in what it means to be a hero – hints wonderful potential of her skills as an assured storyteller. There is a moment in the second act of the film that veers into musical number territory; something that would feel awfully out of place if handled poorly. But in Cinorre’s hands, the moment is both transgressive — in how it violates genre formulas – and ultimately illuminating in how it conveys the exhilaration in having the upper hand in terms of power over gender norms.

Adding to the dream-like feel are the efforts from both cinematographer Levy and composer Stetson. Levy, who is famous for his contributions to Noah Baumbach films and most recently Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut Lady Bird, brings an immersive beauty to the film that feels alluring in how brightly lit is and the extensive use of extreme wide shots but it is overly done to the point that there is a suspicious, off-kilter feel behind it that lends a sense of unease for its characters. While Stetson’s work (who is best known for his contributions in genre films like Hereditary and Colour Out of Space) is both understated and propulsive in the way that is gradual and reflective of the character arc of Ana as well as the stakes at hand; especially as it starts off as melodic to intense over the runtime.

Powerfully thought-provoking, amazingly singular and beautifully fascinating, Mayday is an outstanding directorial debut from writer/director Cinorre that shows potential that she will be a wonderful filmmaker in the future. Highly recommended.

FIVE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Mayday is screening as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, which is being presented virtually between January 28th and February 3rd, 2021.  For more information head to the official Sundance page.

Harris Dang

Rotten Tomatoes-approved Film Critic. Also known as that handsome Asian guy you see in the cinema with a mask on.

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