Sundance 2021: Karen Cinorre's 'Mayday' Film Fights the Patriarchy
by Alex Billington
February 3, 2021
Mayday, mayday! It's time to fight the patriarchy! One of my favorite premieres from the 2021 Sundance Film Festival is this gritty war film Mayday, written & directed by filmmaker Karen Cinorre making her feature directorial debut. There are many, many films being made these days about fighting the patriarchy and the power of modern feminism. There are also plenty of films telling stories about women fighting back against abusive men and pushing back against oppressive societies. But few films, few conversations ever, dare to wade into the discussion on toxic feminism. But this film finally does. Mayday is a compelling sci-fi fantasy thriller set in "another place" where a group of women are fighting a never-ending war against men. All men. Soldiers and others that randomly appear in their paradise are swiftly & mercilessly killed. But this film isn't really glorifying violence, it's examining how feminists fight back (literally) against the patriarchy.
Mayday introduces us to an overworked and overwhelmed young woman named Ana, played by Grace Van Patten. After experiencing more abuse and torment at the hands of men while working at a wedding, she is zapped by electricity, then finds herself falling (like Alice in Wonderland) into "another world." She pulls herself out of the water and soon meets three other women: Marsha, played by Mia Goth; Gert, played by Soko; and Bea, played by Havana Rose Liu. They teach her how to survive in this land - while residing in an old, beached U-boat submarine. She is taught how to stand up for herself, physically and mentally, by her fellow feminist warriors. And they try to help her forget her old ways and stop letting men control her. But, of course, this isn't the perfect place to be if you don't enjoy taking out bad men. The story moves at a casual pace to let us settle into this new world and get a sense of what Cinorre is trying to say by bringing us here.
Yes, the fighting-the-patriarchy concept is obvious but I dig it, I really dig it. This is an awesome film. It has just the right amount of grittiness and brutal honesty. The way the other women talk directly to Ana and teach her the truth about abuse and the way the world works isn't some glossy feel-good take. I want to call this the new and improved Tank Girl, but it's actually something else entirely. Though the Sucker Punch comparisons are spot on. Both Sucker Punch and Mayday are about women entering a fantasy world where they learn to literally fight the patriarchy and evil men. This is a smarter "film festival" version of that idea, and it's crafted carefully so that there is actually some worthwhile commentary to consider. The film has an air of confidence that gives is an instantly iconic feel - the main submarine set piece and the minimalism of the rest of the location. And the sharp focus of the script, which doesn't wander off into other boring realms.
It's also a film that will stick with you and stay in your mind for days… What intrigues me about Mayday is how it sets up "we must teach women to stand up and fend for themselves, and literally fight patriarchy with a strong mentality" while also showing how easily this can turn into toxic feminism, an uncomfortable topic for many. I believe it's ultimately a very empowering film because it dips into the reality of how hard it is to build up your mind and fight the patriarchy and abuse. You have to really let go of who you were to become someone new. And this can also go too far and become a dangerous norm that just results in more harm, and that's tricky to navigate. And it seems Cinorre wants us to consider that. There's an unforgettable "IT'S THE SAME THING" line shouted by one of the protagonists that should send a chill down everyone's spine. And that's the moment where this film starts to really come together, everything starts to make more sense.
Ultimately, this version of the "fight" is important to rile people up, give them something to think about, something to chew on. It's not pretty, and that's the kind of truth we need to deal with to begin to have real conversations that lead to change. Especially because it's the polar opposite of a film like Promising Young Woman, which wants to be a revenge tale but it's blatantly afraid of violence and doesn't address any of the real problems. Mayday picks up this conversation from a whole different angle - taking out men is satisfying and empowering, but is it really making the world a better place? Similar themes, similar discussions, but entirely different films. I don't even care that Mayday hits all the obvious beats making its point - it's just uniquely awesome and I am so glad it exists. And I don't think it's worth dismissing only because it's much more violent and gritty. It's still an inspiring and liberating story in its own cinematically empowering way.