“Mary. Alpha. Yankee. Delta. Alpha. Yankee.”
These are the first words uttered in Karen Cinorre’s directorial debut “Mayday.” The screen is black before we are shown three distinct shots: a soldier jumping out of an aircraft, the foggy clouds in the sky and the vast ocean below, before they finally reach Ana (Grace Van Patten, “The Meyerowitz Stories”) as she is woken up in her car.
The first ten minutes establish Ana’s dreary world. She works as a wedding server with an abusive boss in what is clearly a toxic environment, though her situation is never fully explained. When she is sent to the basement to check the fuse box, the power goes out and, in a dreamlike sequence, she wanders through the kitchen. The lights are off, the stovetops are lit and Ana crawls through the oven.
She is transported to a new world: a picturesque island where she is greeted by Marsha (Mia Goth, “Emma”) who instantly treats her like a sister. This new world is never defined, but is presumably some kind of limbo that is undeniably reminiscent of J.M. Barrie’s Neverland and Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland.
Marsha brings her to the abandoned shipwreck where she lives and introduces her to Gert (Soko, “The Dancer”) and Bea (Havana Rose Liu, in her debut). Ana is immediately brought into their group and has to figure out where she is and who they are just as the audience does.
What follows is a dive into a whirlpool of hazy social commentary. While “Mayday” has many strong elements, ranging from its intriguing premise to its breathtaking visuals, it is difficult to decipher what the film is really trying to say. With clear references to the myth of the siren, there are obvious themes of feminism, trauma and abuse, but instead of providing any in-depth exploration, each interaction feels surface level or too on-the-nose — one line being, “Girls are better off dead, because now we’re free.”
In one scene, Ana sees Marsha using the NATO phonetic alphabet to spell out Mayday (Mary, Alpha, Yankee, etc.), which sends out a distress signal to nearby ships. When men respond to the signals, Marsha purposefully leads them to unsafe waters, and we listen as the men are overtaken by the ocean as the radio cuts out. “Mayday” tries to turn the damsel in distress trope on its head, and while that idea is alluring, the rest of the movie doesn’t get much more interesting.
The first act pulls its viewer in, but once Ana is in the “dream world,” not much else is left to be said. Clearly, Ana is escaping the troubles of her regular life and goes on to kill a bunch of men the same way that Marsha did, but that’s all there is. The first ten minutes of exposition aren’t enough to inspire a real understanding or connection with Ana, and neither she nor the rest of the characters are ever given a solid background to support the essentially nonexistent plot. This is unfortunate, especially since some of the performances — in particular, Goth’s — are just so good.
That being said, as a directorial debut, Cinorre already has a very distinct style that could have benefited from a clearer story. Strengthened by Sam Levy’s (“Lady Bird”) gorgeous cinematography, as well as a brief musical number which was unexpected but amusing, “Mayday” will intrigue you with its charms but leave you wanting so much more than what you get.
Daily Arts Writer Judith Lawrence can be reached at email@example.com.