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Sundance 2021 Review: Mayday – “This ambitious project had a lot of promise”

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Grace Van Patten appears in Mayday by Karen Cinorre, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Tjaša Kalkan.

“Mary. Alpha. Yankee. Delta. Alpha. Yankee”

These words repeat over and over again, using the phonetic alphabet utilized in military radio transmission.  But something’s different.  If you know that alphabet you know that Mike is the stand-in for the letter M, not Mary, and it’s a subtle and clever clue to the female-driven world you’re about to discover in Mayday.

Ana (Grace Van Patten) is at work, helping prepare for a wedding party while a raging storm approaches.  She tries to avoid her crass, abusive boss who tells her to, “Clean yourself up. I have to look at that face”.  She gets introduced as a nobody when the event photographer asks who she is.  The bride, upon her arrival, looks miserable, only to be told by the bathroom attendant, “I know it feels like a nightmare.  That’s normal.”  All the women within these walls are carrying burdens of different natures.  But when an accident transports Ana amongst the storm to a strange shore, she finds herself in a whole different world.

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“You’ve been in a war your whole life, you just didn’t know it,” Ana’s told as she scrambles to become oriented to her new surroundings.  She’s quickly assimilated into a group of female soldiers including Bea (Havana Rose Liu) and Gert (Soko).  Their leader is Marsha (Mia Goth), a no-nonsense authority.  Ana’s given a military-like uniform and a job, becoming a sniper.  “Girls make excellent snipers,” Marsha says.  “They have to endure uncomfortable positions for hours, make themselves invisible.”  Their opponent in this never-ending war?  Seemingly any man who makes his way onto shore, many of whom are lured there by the ‘damsel in distress’ radio call (“they like their girls softer, less authority”) of “Mary. Alpha. Yankee. Delta. Alpha. Yankee.”  But as Ana discovers a newfound sense of freedom and empowerment with her new allies, she also begins to question their motives, becoming increasingly anxious to try and find a way back home.

Writer/director Karen Cinorre has created an ambitious debut project with Mayday, an allegory for the female experience.  She has bold, unapologetically feminist dialogue throughout her script which never tries to disguise itself as anything else.  And why should it?  This is a world where women are in charge.  Yet this is also a world that is never fully explored or explained.  The mythology of this fantasy land remains largely a mystery.  Part of that seems to be because we don’t spend enough time with Ana and the other women in reality to have enough recognition of the players.  Many of the men the women dispose of seem to be related to their past, but we either are unaware of this or don’t recall them from the seconds they spent on screen.  The lack of world and character building here makes the fantasy less compelling.

Cinorre based this story on the Greek mythology of the siren – a half-bird, half-woman creature who lures sailors to their demise with her enchanting song.  This is apparently a fascination with the writer/director, but she also put a lot of her other interests into this mix – World War II, action movies, coming of age stories, even, at one point inserting a rather random musical number.  I’m all for subverting genre, but it’s an odd mixture and there just isn’t a strong enough plot to pull all of this together.  This film is likely to get comparisons to 2011’s Sucker Punch (though much less Zack Snyder-y), and while Mayday does some things a lot better, even that movie had more of a coherent story.

The cast of the film seems game for whatever Cinorre had planned but even a couple too-brief appearances from bad-ass actor Juliette Lewis can’t really save the day.  Neither can the otherworldly score from composer Colin Stetson, though it certainly adds an element of interest. It’s clear that this ambitious project had a lot of promise and Cinorre has a lot of creativity to share with the world.  For her desire and ability to share strong, female-driven projects on the big screen I can only applaud her efforts.  We all want to see more of those and I’ll continue to watch for this strong voice to break through.  But while this film started as one of my most anticipated views of Sundance, it just had me sending out my own mayday call.

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