Mayday immediately sets its stage with a vague sense of unreality. Our protagonist Ana (Grace Van Patten) awakens in a car on what appears to be a pier adjacent warehouse district. The car radio suggests a vehicle from the ’70s, perhaps. Her outfit and that of the man, Dmitri (Théodore Pellerin) who woke her up, seem closer to the ’50s aesthetic. The setting of the wedding reception they’re about to cater doesn’t help things either.
While things will get stranger, what with Ana crawling through an oven in a burning basement on her way to swimming to a magic island, we already feel ourselves unmoored from time and location.
Mayday Unreally Contemplates Extremism and the Patriarchy
In the gray place, we initially find her, Ana quietly tries to get through each day. She rejects the spotlight while quietly, humbly, trying to help others. Nonetheless, she repeatedly catches the literal abusive ire of her boss. He yells at, threatens, and degrades her. He follows her into a dark freezer in one scene, leaving us outside to imagine what he’s doing to her. The movie never states it outright but does make clear that whatever he’s done, it left bruises.
Through the oven lies a lush golden-tinged island where Marsha (Mia Goth) is the de facto leader of a collection of wronged women. Although we are left to assume the island is well populated, we only see a small collection of recruits. Ana lives in a beached sub with Bea (Havana Rose Liu), Gert (Soko), and Marsha herself. They, it seems, are Marsha’s inner circle. Only June (Juliette Lewis), who either has been told to live on her own or prefers it that way, seems to rank enough to interact with the quartet. We hear from several of the other women, but only in one pivotal scene.
The island’s vague magic properties bring about many changes. For example, everyone except Ana’s memories of their past lives fade to nothing, with only the notion that men hurt them repeatedly seeming to remain. In addition, they gain abilities they seemed to lack in their previous lives, such as becoming a natural swimmer, gaining night vision, or becoming a sharpshooter without a moment of practice. It also allows the women to act as technologically upgraded sirens, using a radio to lure men towards the island and their deaths. When men start to arrive on the island by air, however, Ana struggles with the idea of more up-close murdering. Marsha’s bloodlust, on the other hand, only grows.
This conflict pushes the film towards its climax where Ana must choose between Marsha’s extremist world vision or returning to her previous life with its patriarchal violence. I confess I’m of somewhat of a mixed mind about this final dilemma. If Ana is trading one unreality for another, what does it matter? Unlike Wizard of Oz, which Mayday borrows from more heavily than you might initially realize, our protagonist does not have to decide to reject a fantasy world for reality with all its shortcomings. Instead, the choice reduces to just selecting what brutality she’d prefer to spend her life-fighting.
Writer-Director Karen Cinorre has created a visually compelling film in her first feature effort. The subtle unreality she imbues in each environment has a bewitching effect. Unfortunately, this also robs Mayday of a sense of stakes. Nothing feels quite real, so none of the concerns that should animate us carry weight. Is Ana’s morality truly in peril if she’s killing men who effectively don’t exist? Is the violence of the gray world worth a concern if Ana can seemingly triumph over it by singing at a wedding reception?
The only relationship that ultimately compels is the bond between Bea and Gert. Their friendship (the film is largely sexless so the vague hints of something more between them are as close to any kind of queer romance we get) quietly hits emotional beats that the splashy struggle over to kill or not never manages.
Van Patten and Goth do well with the material. Goth taps into Marsha’s gleeful sociopathy and seemingly bottomless reserves of rage in a way that feels right to the character while not undermining the final choice Mayday gives her. Van Patten could give us a stronger sense of the seductive pull the island and Marsha have on Ana, but she captures what is immutable in Ana even as she sheds the skin of the abused woman she was before the island.
As a visual and performance piece, there’s plenty to like in Mayday. Its ideas intrigue as well. However, because the film never makes us believe in the urgent nature of its central conflict, it feels a bit empty at its core. It was enough to get me excited about whatever Cinorre will do next, certainly. I only wish Mayday was good enough to get me that excited about the film itself, not just the future projects of those involved.