'Mayday' Review: Mia Goth Leads A Group Of Lost Girls To War In A Dreamy, Distorted 'Peter Pan' Fable [Sundance 2021]

"Mary, Alpha, Yankee, Delta, Alpha, Yankee..." a woman's voice lazily repeats over radio static, as a man parachutes from a helicopter amid a freak storm. That refrain echoes throughout Karen Cinorre's surreal drama: "Mayday, mayday" the woman calls, not appearing to need much help at all.

But Mayday is very much about women in need. Women who have taken sanctuary in a dreamlike fantasy world eternally at war, luring men to their deaths with their distress calls like some kind of post-modern siren. Writer and director Cinorre, in her stunning feature directorial debut, has crafted an eerie distorted Peter Pan fable out of a fantasy of a women's world, which pokes at the fragile barrier between life and death.

It's in this strange Neverland where Grace Van Patten's Ana finds herself after a short circuit at her workplace lands her on this nameless island, washing up on shore with no memory of what happened before. We only get fractured glimpses of Ana's previous life too, and it's a dreary one. She's a waitress at some anonymous venue, where the wedding of a scared young woman (Mia Goth) is about to take place. Though the sweet kitchen chef and her friend and co-worker Dimitri (Théodore Pellerin) are kind to her, she frequently weathers verbal and physical abuse from her employers — and in one harrowing instance, implied sexual abuse. It's right after this attack, left mercifully vague by Cinorre, that Ana suddenly finds herself transported to this dream world after she curiously takes a look inside a glowing oven.

Ana washes up on the shore of a beach, where Goth is waiting, a totally different woman than the trembling young bride-to-be that Ana had previously met. Wearing an army jacket over her dress, Goth, now calling herself Marsha, revives the disoriented Ana and cheerily welcomes her to her new home. Before Ana can react, a young soldier parachutes down to ask about a mysterious distress signal that had called him there. Goth waves him away and takes Ana back into the woods, as an unseen sniper fatally shoots the soldier.

It's an odd introduction to a place that Marsha introduces as a new sanctuary for Ana, and two other lost girls, Bea (Havana Rose Liu) and Gert (Soko), whom she had taken under her wing. They spend their days living in an abandoned U-boat, sending out the fake distress signals to lure men into storms that send them crashing to their deaths and going "hunting" for any surviving invaders that broach their shores. Also residing on the island is the tough-as-nails June (a wonderful Juliette Lewis).

"There's a war on," the girls tell Ana, though they won't tell her who against. But Ana quickly takes to her training to become a hardened soldier in this eternal war with a nameless enemy, as if she had been waiting for this fight her whole life. And in a way, she has, Mayday suggests, presenting this dreamland as a kind of final destination for wronged girls who would be happy to wreak bloody vengeance on men. It's the afterlife, Marsha tells Ana, and a chance for women to create "a new song," and forget the old sad ones of their real lives. But Ana isn't able to forget her old life, as sad and uneventful as it was. Perhaps she wants to do more than transform herself into a ruthless tool of righteous vengeance, which soon puts her at odds with the increasingly unhinged Marsha.

Goth is dynamite as Marsha, a bullying, almost tyrannical, leader of the lost girls, whose sociopathic nature truly does present her as a kind of twisted Peter Pan figure. She's charismatic, terrifying, and utterly magnetic, liable to snap at any moment. But beneath her anger is hurt, which Goth briefly shows glimpses of in that unpredictable way that the ethereal Suspiria star has a knack for. But Grace Van Patten holds her own as Ana becomes more defiant of Marsha, delivering an alternately willful and vulnerable performance that grows in strength as the film wears on.

It's a staggering feature directorial debut from Cinorre, who writes and directs the atmospheric and unsettling film, a contemplative exploration of women's lot in life. As vague and opaque as Mayday is, Cinorre never gets lost in her stylistic flourishes, wielding them only to further Ana's own exploration of her wants and needs (aside from one gorgeous dance sequence set to Liberace) — as she decides whether to transform herself into a force of nature, or to embrace the life of flesh and blood, and all its pain and joys. Wrapped up in its deconstruction of a women's world is the idea of suicidal ideation, which Mayday tackles with a sensitivity and novelty, shining a rare ray of hope amid a dark world. "In the dark, I'll see the stars," Ana concludes.

/Film Rating: 8 out of 10