“Mike, Alpha, Yankee, Delta, Alpha, Yankee.” It’s these collection of words, along with images of long tunnels and bombers with airmen, that ruminate through Ana’s (Grace Van Patten) dreams. No matter how random they seem, they’re at least better than her real life, which features a miserable catering job with an abusive boss. In Karen Cinorre’s whimsical Mayday, Ana soon leaves her life for a land of fulfillment and happiness which can find plenty of dreamy moments, yet still finds itself stuck within its blunt material.
We open with Ana starting another day in her dead-end job, feeling as if all hope is lost. Yet there are still people in her life who care about her, like her co-workers Dimitri (Théodore Pellerin) and Max (Zlatko Buric). Yet it’s tough to feel the love, when you’re rendered invisible by the discarding and abuse you face by so many. But after a storm and mysterious crawl through a portal in an oven, Ana is transported to a rocky beach where she’s greeted by the flippant Marsha (Mia Goth) who’s long been expecting her. Yet Ana’s memory is foggy, as the people of this island look a lot like some of the people in Ana’s real life. Goth, in one of her strongest performances, first appears as a bride terrified before her upcoming wedding, and is reimagined on the island as a ruff and brash leader eager to pull Ana into her troop.
From there what follows is a mashup of The Wizard of Oz, Peter Pan, Lord of the Flies and Sucker Punch with a feminist pulse, as the skittish Ana finds herself in a forever war where Marsha is the captain. Initially delivering itself as a dreamscape with candid viewpoints, Cinorre spends the film’s first act cleverly laying out the rules of the land. Marsha has “saved” other girls before, like Gert (Soko) and Bea (Havana Rose Liu), and they all spend their time waging battles against the men they attack in their war games. Revealing why Ana has been hearing the aforementioned spelling out of “M.A.Y.D.A.Y” in the phonetic alphabet, Marsha giddily explains to Ana how they feed out fake coordinates to airmen who pick up their false distress signals, sending them straight into either bad weather or death (essentially, if you’re a man and you land on their land, nothing will save you). It’s this first half of the film that offers a daring twist on the old fantasy coming-of-age formula, yet as Mayday progresses it sets into a turgid reserve, stuck in rut searching for something to focus on.
Cinoree manages mostly to balance the film’s tricky tone, even when she never really finds a sense of momentum to it all nor helps balance the world she’s created. Despite its rigid setup, Mayday throws away its sharper elements with increasing conventionality, favoring on-the-nose lines of dialogue or hackneyed visual metaphors; even though Sam Levy’s cinematography lends a keen eye to the film’s visual language.
As things progress, the twists that follow are rather foreseeable, Ana becomes more of a cipher than a full character, and Marsha’s leadership, unshockingly, doesn’t last forever. Even in a world of fantasy, things are never fully idyll, and Ana’s soft heart begins to derail Marsha’s bold ideas. As a debut feature, the pieces of something good are there, as Cinorre’s ambitious grasp of world-building shows something good can come down the line, yet Mayday isn’t the one yet. Here’s to hoping that next time she’ll be willing to stay in the ambitious lane instead of veering into something more conventional, congealing her ideas to a fully formed piece. Whoppingly blunt, Mayday can find some transporting elements but its lack of focus and progressing simplicity outwork the strong ensemble.
Mayday premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. It’s currently seeking U.S. distribution.