Film Review – May December
Director Todd Haynes toes a fine line with May December (2023). There are instances where the material delves into dark and troubling areas, involving childhood trauma, grief, guilt, and unspoken animosity. Other times, the narrative becomes so over the top that what we’re seeing cannot be anything other than high camp. It’s a strange balancing act – at one point we are laughing at the absurd humor, only to be riveted by the emotional drama taking place a few scenes later. The screenplay (Samy Burch, Alex Mechanik) requires a deft hand to traverse the rollercoaster ride of highs and lows. Haynes manages it all into one cohesive piece, creating a melodrama that teeters on the edge of the abyss but never falls off. This is a movie that feels wrong in all the right ways.
We start off with a provocative premise. Grace (Julianne Moore) and Joe (Charles Melton) are a married couple living in Georgia. The two were embroiled in controversy two decades earlier, when Gracie (who was in her thirties and married) entered a sexual relationship with Joe (who was thirteen at the time). The scandal made headline news, and yet after all was said and done Gracie and Joe stayed together, even having kids of their own (who are now about to graduate high school). The story picks up when actor Elizabeth (Natalie Portman) visits the family to prepare for an upcoming movie based on their story. Elizabeth inserts herself into Gracie and Joe’s everyday life, trying to get to the intricacies of their relationship.
Whether intentional or not, the story draws distinct parallels to the Mary Kay Letourneau/Vili Fualaau case, in which the former engaged in an improper relationship with the latter, who was her student. But what makes May December so interesting is that it doesn’t focus on the affair directly, but instead sees it two decades later, in which everyone has grown older and have dealt (or not dealt) with the ramifications. This includes public scorn, such as when strangers leave boxes of human feces on the front doorstep. But more importantly, it’s about the unresolved issues between Gracie and Joe, and the questionable ways Elizabeth wiggles herself into their lives.
Obviously, this is very tricky material littered with narrative landmines everywhere. Luckily, Haynes and the rest of the production handle it with skill, never falling completely into the lurid muck yet allowing for the right amount of danger to seep in. There is an underlying tension throughout, where characters may say one thing but are thinking something different. Whether it is resentment, temptation, or eroticism, the film acts like a ticking time bomb waiting to go off. A lot of this is due to Christopher Blauvelt’s cinematography, which captures the Georgian environments in hazy golden hues to amplify all the emotions running around. But in terms of craft, the biggest contributor is Marcelo Zarvos’ heavy piano score, which comes blaring in whenever a key moment occurs. The way the camera zooms into a person’s face at a moment of revelation, combined with the excessive music, creates an effect not too unlike a soap opera or telenovela.
The biggest surprise of May December is how funny it can get. Whether it’s Elizabeth digging too deep into her role, or when Gracie has a melt down over the smallest inconvenience, there are sequences where the narrative gets very funny. Is it because we are put in an uncomfortable state that our only release valve is to laugh? Elizabeth explains that she wants to understand Gracie and Joe’s relationship, to get to the “truth” removed from the tabloids and media scrutiny. But how much can she truly understand when Gracie and Joe don’t understand the situation themselves? Glass mirrors play as a recurring motif, representing the characters’ inability to see themselves for who they really are. We have three people circling one another, connected in certain ways but clearly set apart because of what happened. They all try to wear a veil of “normalcy” when it is clear they are on the edge of unraveling. It’s that strange dynamic that the dark humor comes forth.
The performances juggle the various tones, combining camp and earnestness with equal flair. Notice how much of a chameleon Natalie Portman is as Elizabeth. As the character learns more about Gracie, the more she starts acting and dressing like her, even adopting her slight lisp. It’s a gradual transformation that showcases how much Elizabeth dissolves the line between reality and fantasy. During a Q&A with an acting class, a student asks Elizabeth how she manages sex scenes. Elizabeth responds by questioning whether an actor’s success is due to them pretending to experience pleasure or are in fact going through lustful feelings. Does she feel the same way with her “research” into Gracie and Joe? Is what she’s doing actual research or is it exploitation? How far must she immerse herself into this world before she loses her bearings?
At this point in their careers, Julianne Moore and Todd Haynes have solidified themselves as one of the great actor/director collaborations. Moore adapts to exactly what Haynes asks of her, and she continues that with her work as Gracie. It’s not an easy character to tackle, to say the least. Gracie is a criminal and sexual predator, and the more we learn of her, the more we see her in denial of that fact. She’s a walking contradiction. She will exude domestic stability but will become unhinged at the drop of a hat. Moore plays this aspect to its full range, such as when Gracie hilariously complains about not having enough hot dogs for the family BBQ. When Gracie breaks down in tears after someone no longer wants to buy her homemade cakes, we intuit that there is more going on than midst the eye. Moore expresses how dangerous and manipulative Gracie can be. When faced with the consequences of her actions, Gracie can turn aggressively defensive, using psychological tactics to gain the upper hand.
But the true standout of May December – the one that gives the film a beating heart – is Charles Melton as Joe. Every acting choice Melton makes feels correct and believable. Joe is a person suffering from his childhood trauma, who never got to experience being a kid, and had to grow up quickly due to the bad decisions of an adult. Joe is filled with guilt and confusion, to the point where he can barely articulate what he is thinking. He clearly loves his children, but is aware that at his age, he’s young enough to be their sibling. He sticks with Gracie, but is it because he really loves her, or does he have nowhere else to turn? We see all this burden pushing down on him, his shoulders crumbling under the weight of it all. Yes, there is a lot of zaniness throughout the film, but Melton’s performance as Joe is authentic, down to Earth, and heartbreaking.
There are a lot of moving parts in May December, and after writing this review I feel like we have only skimmed the surface. This is one of those films where every element must be firing on all cylinders to work. If one piece didn’t fit correctly, the entire puzzle would fall apart. Todd Haynes once again shows his skills with melodrama, examining relationships that push against social conventions. He explores why people make decisions that put them at risk of peril. While we may not get a definitive answer in this case, at the very least, the film has the maturity and craftsmanship to ask the question.