Sundance Review: Karen Cinorre’s ‘Mayday’

Mayday Movie Film

Fantasy can be a powerful tool in everyone’s life. Rather than being mere escapism, it can function as a way to process and understand the world around us, as well as inspire strength to fight life’s numerous, seemingly never-ending battles. Most fictional fantasy worlds about struggle and strength, however, are predominately male, with fantasy fiction for women too often falling into “damsel in distress” stories and the like. Writer-director Karen Cinorre’s first feature film, Mayday, seeks to help correct that balance, telling a fantasy story predominately about, for and starring young women. It’s a film that frustrates as it challenges centuries worth of fantasy fiction, breaking rhythms and rules of genre as it blazes its own trail. Yet its boldness is refreshing and ultimately emotionally rewarding. 

Mayday begins in what ostensibly seems to be the “real” world, with the unassuming Ana (Grace Van Patten) attempting to make it through yet another day at her crappy kitchen staff job as they prepare for a wedding ceremony. Despite the kindness of a friend, Dimitri (Théodore Pellerin), she’s overwhelmed by her lot in life, assaulted by her abusive boss, and has to deal with a number of problems arising from an approaching violent storm. As the storm overtakes the wedding venue, Ana finds herself magically transported to a fantasy island that seems to be in a 1940’s/World War II time period. There, she meets a small “crew” of an abandoned U-Boat who quickly become her friends and compadres — the militant Marsha (Mia Goth), tough Gert (Soko) and innocent Bea (Havana Rose Liu). The foursome celebrate their freedom as much as they can, but a never-ending series of male soldiers keep encroaching on their territory. Marsha attempts to get Ana to adopt a “kill or be killed” approach to them, while Ana isn’t so sure. 

It’s difficult to talk about Mayday because it refuses to adhere to any particular narrative structure while adopting a number of them for its own purposes. It’s clear, for instance, that Cinorre’s main template is The Wizard of Oz (1939), yet that film, for all its dream bookending, has a fairly solid set of rules. Things happen in Mayday seemingly at will, and there’s no attempt at any justification beyond what feels right. Cinorre’s poetic dialogue and stylistic flourishes embrace the artistic, dream-like aims of the film, refusing to let it be grounded in logic. It’s purely emotional, and it flies in the face of most fantasy fiction — its “world building” is less piece-by-piece than it is intuitive. As frustrating as this is in the early sections of the film, it becomes exciting when one realizes how Cinorre is reclaiming traditionally male spaces for her female protagonists — submarine movies, Peter Pan, Lord of the Flies and WWII “men on a mission” films are all invoked and remixed in Mayday. These evocations are particularly ironic given that the magical island Ana finds herself on seems to be a place for women to process and redirect trauma visited on them, particularly by men — the initial killing of soldiers is cathartic and revengeful at first, as Marsha explains how women “make the best snipers” because of their ability to remain in “uncomfortable positions.” One of the reasons Mayday is challenging is because, aside from Ana’s boss, Cinorre doesn’t portray men as overtly evil, their misogyny more subtly insidious, such as their constant referring to the four women as “nurses,” not seeing them as a threat until it’s too late. At points, Mayday makes the women’s catharsis also obtuse — one scene sees Ana’s attack on a group of soldiers turn into a musical dance number.

What helps make Mayday a riveting experience rather than an obnoxious experimental exercise is the cast and crew Cinorre puts together. The core ensemble of actresses are a delight both individually and together, with each complementing the other — Goth in particular makes a great, intense foil for Van Patten’s softer determination. Cinematographer Sam Levy captures the Croatian locations in such gorgeous natural light that Mayday could also double as a tourism ad, and follows Cinorre’s lead in evoking classic adventure cinema. Colin Stetson’s superlative score becomes the heart of the movie, giving it all the rousing emotion that it can’t quite earn from its script alone. 

Like all the best fantasy stories, Mayday is teeming with imagination, but that strength also doubles as a weakness. It’s exciting and intriguing to compare the film’s story, metaphors and allusions to a number of sources, everything from the aforementioned movie genres to the sirens myth. Ana might really have been transported to this mercurial world, or it all could be in her head, with each of her friends-cum-crew members representing a facet of her personality. None of these comparisons completely gel — for instance, if Gert is Ana’s inner pragmatic self, who is the action hero-like June (Juliette Lewis)? A mother figure? A mentor? Cinorre seems to want all interpretations to exist simultaneously, a choice which leaves the film dangerously untethered. It’s through her skill at adapting the cinematic language of adventure, escape and self-actualization that Mayday ultimately feels emotionally if not intellectually satisfying. Perhaps rather than attempting to build a new fantasy franchise or the like, Cinorre intends for the film’s open-endedness to function as a pure version of what fantasy can provide — a place of escapism as well as understanding, especially for a group relatively underrepresented in the genre. Mayday is the filmic equivalent of an answer to a distress call, letting those in need simply know that it’s there. 

Bill Bria (@billbria) is a writer, actor, songwriter and comedian. ‘Sam & Bill Are Huge,’ his 2017 comedy music album with partner Sam Haft, reached #1 on an Amazon Best Sellers list, and the duo maintains an active YouTube channel and plays regularly all across the country. Bill‘s acting credits include an episode of HBO’s ‘Boardwalk Empire’ and a featured parts in Netflix’s ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ and CBS’ ‘Instinct.’ His film writing can also be seen at Crooked Marquee as well as his own website. Bill lives in New York City.