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film review

Grace Van Patten, Mia Goth, Havana Rose Liu and Soko in Mayday.Courtesy of Mongrel Media

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  • Mayday
  • Written and directed by Karen Cinorre
  • Starring Grace Van Patten, Mia Goth and Juliette Lewis
  • Classification N/A; 100 minutes
  • Available at Toronto’s Carlton cinema, as well as on-demand, including Apple TV/iTunes and Google Play

Karen Cinorre’s debut feature Mayday is a feminist retelling of old tropes, somewhere between The Wizard of Oz and Lord of the Flies, about a vulnerable young woman who wakes up on a deserted island and becomes a killing machine against her will.

Here, our budding soldier is a broken-down waitress living in her car, who dies and enters a liminal dream state and befriends a group of young women all living in an underground submarine. Echoing the dreamy undertones of Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Virgin Suicides, Mayday regales with stunning cinematography (it is shot by Lady Bird director of photography Sam Levy), as well as costumes and production design that create a distinct and visceral world. It’s also led by a great ensemble of interesting young actresses, including Grace Van Patten, Mia Goth, Havana Rose Liu and French indie pop star Soko.

Yet, this is a music video, not a film, with storytelling that neither shows nor tells. While it’s one of the most stylish films to be released so far this year, Mayday is about as feminist as a dude on Tinder wearing a “this is what a feminist looks like” T-shirt, undermining its own existence as a radical act of invention.

Mayday is one of the most stylish films to be released so far this year.Tjasa Kalkan/Courtesy of Mongrel Media

We first meet our heroine Ana (The Meyerowitz Stories’ Grace Van Patten) at her depressing day job. She’s a waitress eking out a bleak existence at an event hall, whose only spot of joy is conversing with a fellow geeky caterer (Canada’s own Théodore Pellerin) and her salty co-worker (an underutilized Juliette Lewis). Bullied by management and sexually harassed, Ana’s day goes so badly that she decides to stick her head in the oven. She soon wakes up on a beach (the one that makes you dead, not old), unable to remember anything about herself. Rescued by a group of lost girls (their leader, Marsha, is played by Goth), Ana is chided into killing the male soldiers who populate the island for sport.

Cinorre’s premise has potential for a YA franchise – it’s the misandrist Hunger Games! – but quickly grows stale. We see montage after montage of Marsha making fake distress calls on an old-fashioned short-wave radio, luring navy fleets of well-meaning men into dangerous hurricanes. Ana becomes a sharpshooter, and in one stylized and tone-deaf dance sequence, murders a whole battalion of sleeping soldiers as if she’s the tap dancing lead of a Ginger Rogers-Fred Astaire musical.

Cinorre continually backs away from showing any actual violence inflicted by the women, preferring to stage them in sun-kissed tableaus, accented by the sound of crashing waves, having vague existential conversations about the moral ramifications of war. There’s a sameness to all the dialogue, with zero emotional stakes or investment in the character’s lives. The only person of colour is Rosie (Havana Rose Liu), a young woman on the submarine who has bad dreams and memory problems, and is yet another person on the island we learn nothing about.

The film's costumes and production design help create a distinct and visceral world.Courtesy of Mongrel Media

While it’s hard to humanize characters who can’t remember anything about their identities and continually say that nothing in their life matters, Cinorre seems to also see these young women as nothing more than aesthetic objects.

Lizzie Borden’s 1983 cult dystopian docudrama Born in Flames illustrated a radical dismantling of oppressive governmental and patriarchal structures by many groups, and intersections, of women and other marginalized peoples. It showed how a violent and anarchic revolution brought by women, people of colour and queer people working together could bring something closer to equality.

In contrast, Mayday slowly sees Ana regain her memories of her past as she receives radio transmissions by men who have treated her kindly. She’s lured back into the very system that subjugated her and plots a way to escape, knowing full well that it will also end the existence of her friends, hoping that she can write a different story for herself. That’s white feminism in practice, from a writer-director who is literally named Karen.

Marsha’s alternative proposition – to murder every man in sight for all eternity – isn’t much better, but there surely has to be something in the middle, right? The proposition of destroying all men versus destroying all other women to privilege the life of one female waitress is not the answer. The coolest-looking movie of the year is surprisingly lame.

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a Critic’s Pick designation across all coverage.