This review originally appeared at Cinema Scholars
Original and opaque, Mayday delivers mystery and camaraderie from first-time director Karen Cinorre. The cast transcends any heavy-handed feminist pratfalls and delivers a rousing story of breaking away and discovering yourself.
Young hotel worker Ana (Grace Van Patten) is spinning. The chaos of her life and job is catching up to her. Following the accidental destruction of a swan ice sculpture and a violent run-in with her boss, Ana sees a way out.
Ana suddenly finds herself washed up on island rocks. She is greeted by Marsha (Mia Goth), who tells her about an ongoing war on the island. Marsha invites Ana to live in a beached submarine with Gert (Soko), Bea (Havana Rose Liu) and herself. The women teach Ana how to live on the island, shoot, swim, and survive amongst the soldiers.
In the submarine’s radio room, Marsha introduces Ana to the ladies’ favorite activity: luring soldiers to their deaths through mayday calls.
As the weeks and months progress, Ana adapts to her new life. But, as she recognizes the steps the women are willing to take to achieve their freedom, she questions her new existence. Does Ana truly belong among these women and can she return to her old life?
On paper, Cinorre’s debut is a rah-rah tale of feminist strength overcoming male oppression. Cinorre and the actresses have no interest in something that surface-level. The film moves with relentless determination without ever bothering to explain anything. This confusion lends credence to the conflicting emotions Ana experiences throughout the film.
The film avoids the typical cliches of a strictly female viewpoint. Despite all the ladies living in close quarters and the intimacy involved, the film is very chaste. Even when the women strip down and swim in the water, they are clothed in plain nightgowns or simple clothing. The idea of sexuality is never broached.
Morality and ethical boundaries play a large factor in the film. Initially, Ana feels immense freedom and empowerment from leading the soldiers to their deaths. As the group’s tactics (and Marsha’s attitude towards those tactics) become more and more vicious, Ana steps back and wonders who the true enemy is.
Some of the soldiers are true scoundrels, but others seem to be just boys. While Ana differentiates the two, Marsha sees no difference between any of the men. In Marsha’s eyes, it doesn’t matter whose side the soldiers fight; they are all the enemy.
Van Patten is ever-present throughout Mayday‘s runtime. She is as is unaware of the goings-on as the audience and plays that innocence smartly. Her fierce warrior turn is earned and equally well-suited.
Soko and Liu complement each other and skirt the moral boundary between Ana and Marsha. Both forge their own unique identities and are easy to cheer for. Oscar nominee Juliette Lewis shows up for all-to-brief a period as the potential solution to Ana’s problems. Her cinematic reputation and hard-nosed attitude fit the ensemble nicely.
Goth might not have as much screentime as Van Patten, but she makes an indelible impression. Marsha is singular in her cause and damned anyone who gets in her way. Goth encompasses Marsha with manic energy while steadying her enough where her leadership abilities are never questioned. She is not afraid of the difficult realities her character faces and dives directly into them.
Mayday has some ambiguous ideas about male-female and female-female dynamics. While this gray area helps the film stand out from the typical fare, but loses some accessibility.
Cinorre is a name to watch in the future. The film has a distinct visual style and stretches the budget for everything it is worth. The film might seem like a “women killing men” fantasy, but the filmmakers have much bolder ideas that deserve your attention.