Mayday Is a Circean Myth About Surviving the World's Cruelty

Grace Van Patten as Ana.
Grace Van Patten as Ana.
Image: Complementary, Colors Queen’s Army, Secret Engine/Sundance
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The situations that bring Ana, the disoriented heroine of writer-director Karen Cinorre’s Mayday, to the movie’s remote, windswept island are as disturbing as they are integral to the movie’s message of survival. After losing herself in a storm of the world’s brutality, Ana comes to on a seemingly deserted island, unsure of what’s happened, and fuzzy on the details about her past.

Mayday, which debuted at the 2021 Sundance Festival, begins slowly as Ana (Grace Van Patten) tries to piece together her fragmented memory, only to be left with a handful of jarring flashbacks that give you a sense of the brutality she experienced back home.

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All of Ana’s fear and doubts about washing ashore on the island are tempered by the quick and intimate friendship she forges with Marsha (Mia Goth), the leader of a ragtag group of women who’ve somehow found a way to thrive away from the island’s rocky cliffs that feature prominently in cinematographer Sam Levy’s shots, which break the movie up beautifully. Because Ana initially lacks the context to fully grasp what’s happened to her, it’s easy to be sucked into Marsha and the other women’s almost Peter Pan-like lives of wandering about the island and delighting in its natural beauties.

In between afternoons of diving into the ocean and hiking through the forests, Marsha and the others spend their time honing their sharpshooting and other combat skills. As Ana begins to come back into herself, the darkness that brought her to the island begins to make itself more evident, and Marsha invites Ana to become the newest member of her very special troop of warriors at the center of Mayday’s story. Though it first appears as if Ana and everyone else on the island is alone, the film shows you how, occasionally, men will wash up on shore or descend from the skies, and when they do, Marsha and the others are ready and willing to murder them in cold blood, not unlike the Themyscira Amazons from DC’s comics.

Even more disturbing are the hours the women spend huddled in a wartime bunker using a system of weather mapping and strategic radio communication to lure unsuspecting sailors and airmen into violent storms that lead to their deaths, somewhat like Greek mythology’s Sirens. Though Ana’s at first unsure whether she’s meant to become part of something like Marsha’s squad, she can’t deny that the other women bring out a strength and resolve in her that was fading, and her desire to hold onto that feeling becomes part of Mayday’s most central conflict.

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Instead of transforming their prey into animals, like the mythic witch goddess Circe, Mayday focuses on Ana’s personal metamorphosis into a different kind of person as she comes to grips with the dark realities of her past life and contemplates whether she could genuinely find peace in the present. Ana’s relationship with Marsha runs hot and uneasy, and she forms a close bond with Gert (French singer SoKo), who sees her potential as a sharpshooter and companion capable of making life on the island more joyful. Van Patten’s Ana never quite seems to fully pull herself out of the shock she’s in when Marsha first finds her on the shore and begins to groom her in more ways than one. The manic, embittered energy Goth brings to the screen works for Marsha’s characterization, but it often leads to Marsha feeling dangerously close to pulling too much focus from the movie’s other characters.

One of Mayday’s most subtly powerful scenes comes early into the film as the islanders explain to Ana how important the tone of her voice is in luring men to their dooms. At multiple points during the movie, you hear the different women feigning distress as they spell out “mayday” in phonetic code across the airwaves, and in almost every instance, they end up listening as the vessels’ pilots scream for mercy from death. Violent as the women’s radio work is, there’s a powerful catharsis in it that Ana can’t deny, but the radios also function as one of the few ways that she’s able to get a sense that there may be more paths to happiness in this limbo world that don’t involve murder.

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The metaphors that Mayday’s working in don’t always effectively communicate Cinorre’s ideas clearly, and there are stretches that feel somewhat adrift in the narrative tumult of its story. While the movie leaves you with many questions, it’s far from being unsatisfying, and it’s going to be very interesting to see where the writer-director’s work ventures next.

Mayday premiered as part of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Plans for a wider digital and theatrical distribution have yet to be revealed.

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io9 Culture Critic and Staff Writer. Cyclops was right.

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