Synopsis: Twenty years after their notorious tabloid romance gripped the nation, a married couple buckles under pressure when an actress arrives to do research for a film about their past.
Stars: Natalie Portman, Julianne Moore, Charles Melton, Cory Michael Smith, Piper Curda, D.W. Moffett, Drew Scheid, Elizabeth Yu, Jocelyn Shelfo, Andrea Frankle, Kelvin Han Yee
Director: Todd Haynes
Running Length: 117 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: The dramatic opening credits of May December play over images of monarch butterflies recently freed from their cocoons. They signify a rebirth, the change from an original state of being into graduation to maturity, and the delicate balance struck during a pivotal time in the insect’s life. Disrupt the cycle, and the butterfly cannot emerge fully formed, stay too long inside, and that perceived ‘comfort’ equates to death. It’s much the same way with human adolescence. We grow, are nurtured to a certain point, and then leave our secure chrysalis community as adults.
While May December isn’t expressly focused on the loss of innocence, it does focus on the after-effects of it decades after it has occurred. There are painful wounds that never heal, and as much as those involved argue with terms like love and connection, the film seeks to explore the deeper meanings behind the more loaded ideas of choice and consent. I’d argue it’s deliberately flawed and often intentionally leaning into its on-the-nose melodrama/camp, but there is little doubt May December is riveting stuff. I can’t imagine two finer actors than Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore tackling this tricky material or a better director than Todd Haynes steering the ship.
It’s been twenty years since Gracie Atherton (Moore, Dear Evan Hansen) was caught in an affair with seventh grader Joe Yoo at the pet shop they both worked at. Gracie was a married mother in Savannah, Georgia, who never indicated to her husband that she was unhappy, and her betrayal of her family came with a considerable cost. Giving birth to Joe’s baby while serving a prison sentence for being involved with the underage boy, the two eventually marry when she is released. They’ve told their story countless times, had twins, and are attempting to lead an everyday life among the same people in the town where the incident occurred.
Enter Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman, Thor: Love and Thunder), a Hollywood actress who has signed on to play Gracie in an independent film based on the affair. It is never entirely clear why the family has authorized this movie or for Elizabeth to come to Savannah and spend several weeks getting to know Gracie, Joe, and their extended family and friends. Still, you get the feeling that money (an unfinished in-ground pool is an eyesore in the Atherton-Yoo backyard) and a need to control the narrative has something to do with it. For her part, Elizabeth has arrived with an agenda that she sets to work on immediately.
It’s a startling movie that thrives in keeping the viewer imbalanced and, therefore, always on alert. Portman’s character is respectful to the sensitive nature of the facts of the case but unrelenting in her quest to chip away at the impenetrable glaze Gracie has painted on over herself and Joe. It becomes easier to break through with Joe (Charles Melton, Bad Boys for Life), and those cracks give Elizabeth the in she needs to push Gracie in the direction she wants. Or has Gracie been playing a bigger game of manipulation than Elizabeth could ever have known?
Haynes (Wonderstruck) has always excelled at creating death-defying tightrope acts for women in the film industry, and he’s done it again with May December. While she earned a well-deserved Oscar for Black Swan, playing a dancer who gradually gives up her scruples, her character in May December enters the action already on unsteady ground. Portman has continually pushed herself into work that challenges herself and the audience. Sometimes, as with Jackie, it works, but it could also turn into a Lucy in the Sky debacle. She’s on target here with a brilliant, brutal approach to the traditional Hollywood actress willing to go the extra mile in the name of research.
Frequent Haynes collaborator Moore is doing her best work since winning a long overdue Oscar for Still Alice. Employing a strange speech impediment that comes and goes is another fascinating layer of this character. Does she use it for dramatic effect to endear herself to the person she is talking to? Or is it something she tries to hide that she can’t cover when she is emotional? You decide. Emotionally fragile but tightly wound otherwise, Moore can turn on a dime until the final moments.
The unenviable task of coming between the two women falls to relative newcomer Melton, and to his great credit, he trades on raw-edged talent over his good looks to be the film’s emotional core. Playing a man who had to grow up faster than anyone could have imagined, he’s a father of three, becoming an empty nester before turning forty, and leading audiences through that situation’s complexity. It gets dicey near the end when his immaturity moves to the forefront (and Haynes makes his one visual flub, an unnecessary full frontal shot of Melton) but levels off thanks to a satisfying conclusion in Samy Burch’s script.
If this all sounds eerily familiar, the elephant in the room is that May December is undoubtedly inspired by the infamous Mary Kay Letourneau case that occurred in the late ’90s. The teacher had an affair with her student, bore his children in jail, and eventually married him. Looking at pictures of Letourneau and how Haynes has recreated some of these shots with Moore, you wonder why the filmmakers didn’t lean into this angle a bit more, but Letourneau passing away in 2020 may have had something to do with that.
Laudable performances and typically skilled direction from Haynes will make this enticing to movie lovers, but May December won’t be as easily accessible as you may imagine. Yes, Portman and Moore are outstanding, and their work deserves to be seen. However, the film has strange vaults into the kind of Almodóvar-ean camp (jarringly loud music cues that don’t align with the delicate images from cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt, Showing Up) that often keep it at an aloof distance. The film frequently transfixed me, with Portman’s bewitchingly good turn in particular, but do handle this one with care.