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REVIEW: Mayday (Sundance 2021)

Feminist rage is not new: sirens lured sailors to their deaths in Greek mythology thousands of years ago, and the famous Amazonian warriers battled armies of men and matched them blow for blow. It’s with these stories in mind that Karen Cinorre makes her feature directorial debut with Mayday, a beguiling fantasy that is part dreamy ode to empowerment, part bloody vengeance on masculinity itself. Mayday builds an entrancing world of its own, and if its central narrative is a bit thinly drawn at times, it nonetheless succeeds on the strength of its stylistic choices and engaging performances from its merry band of female soldiers.

Ana (Grace Van Patten) is a timid waitress who finds herself perpetually pushed around and abused by her domineering boss, the sort of man who looks as though he’s constantly suppressing the urge to either punch a woman in the face or take advantage of her in the stockroom. (Occasionally, he is unsuccessful in overcoming these impulses.) But that all changes when, after a freak electrical accident, she finds herself washing up on a mysterious shore, where the women she encounters are embroiled in a neverending guerilla war against the men who infrequently appear. Is she dead? Dreaming? In a coma? Or has she actually been transported to some feminist Neverland, where she and her newfound friends are free from the clutches of the patriarchy? It’s tough to say.

The world these characters inhabit is thinly sketched out and its internal logic is not what you might call consistent, so any efforts to pin Mayday down and force it to adhere to strict rules of reality are probably doomed before they start. But that’s not really the point of Mayday. Its abstract dreamscape serves as a place of empowerment and sisterhood and yes, occasionally luring unsuspecting men unable to resist the cry of a damsel in distress to their deaths.

Despite the fact that the women of Mayday are endlessly preparing for war and sometimes even engaging in battle, their existence feels relaxed, somehow, without the subtle but smothering presence of masculinity. In a way, the fact that they’re waging a literal war against their patriarchal oppressors rather than trying to enact change from within the system like the rest of us is kind of liberating. The male gaze is completely absent in Mayday, and that freedom is evident in the clothes they wear, the skills they cultivate, and their ability to simply exist in this space, unpestered. In this brave new world, Ana is allowed to flourish, growing in both self-confidence and ability.

One of Mayday’s greatest strengths is in the performances and character development of the core group of women. It’s rare for a film to go to the trouble that this one does of cultivating several different female characters, making them feel unique and human, and it’s clear that each actress was given the space to connect deeply with their character. Mia Goth as Marsha is a clear standout, both self-assured and surprisingly vulnerable, nurturing Ana’s growth even as she is inherently threatened by it. Although the initial goal of this war is freedom from the dominance of men, it becomes self-perpetuating, continuing out of anger and vengeance and a desire for power. Is there any hope for peace or catharsis in a war fought on those terms? Or is it, instead, up to each woman in Mayday to find their own liberation in their own individual ways?

If this is the case, Cinorre makes a clever choice in her aesthetic design of the film, utilizing technology and costuming that reflects a certain 1940s style. The radio communications systems, the hollowed out submarine that our characters call home, even the planes that mysteriously appear from time to time harken back to an era when the modern woman was first born. It’s a conscious nod to the women of World War II, who were coming of age at a time when their ability to choose different personal and professional paths for themselves was expanding like never before.

Mayday isn’t perfect. There are plot elements that work in the moment, but upon closer inspection would likely crumble into dust. It doesn’t take full advantage of the creative possibilities of this brave new world, and uses abstract, dreamy storytelling to cover up the bits it just doesn’t feel like explaining. But it nevertheless has an incredible impact, with expressive performances, a confident visual style, and a clear directorial point of view from Cinorre, who has proven herself to be a compelling new voice in independent filmmaking.

Rating: ★★★★

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