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  • Writer's pictureSaxon Whitehead

'May December': A Bold Drama That's As Uncomfortable As It Is Brilliant

There is a scene close to halfway through Todd Haynes's latest film, May December, in which the characters played by Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore are sitting in a dress shop and having a conversation. The scene itself might seem innocuous on paper, but the way it is framed tells a different story. The two are placed in the center of the shot, but we also see Moore's reflection to the right of them. It gives off the impression that we are looking at a mirror similar to what you might see in a department store dressing room, and peels back a layer of what Haynes and screenwriter Samy Burch seek to explore with this film. In this shot, we are seeing Portman and Moore's conversation rather plainly, but Moore's reflection gives off a different impression, as if we are seeing a more polished version of her. This contrast is exactly what the film is confronting, as it demystifies the sensationalism found in media, and confronts the line between fantasy and reality, as well as what is true and what is mythical. With Haynes's trademark wit and gift for portraying complex relationships on screen, May December reveals itself to be a film about perception, namely how we view scandals and the people involved in them. It ends up being a multi-faceted, often uncomfortable look at the preconceived ideas we have in regards to controversial situations, as well as the reality of these situations for the people directly involved in them. Between its difficult subject matter and general strangeness, this is a film that might alienate some viewers. However, I personally was blown away by the film's intimacy, as well as how Haynes and Burch handle the film's more questionable material. It is a bold, shocking film, and one that has burrowed itself in my mind, and will likely not be leaving any time soon.


Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman) is an actress who arrives in Savannah, Georgia to research the life of Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore), and her controversial relationship with her much younger husband, Joe (Charles Melton). Elizabeth observes Gracie's daily routines, familial relationships, and interviews key figures from her past. As she goes deeper into her research, she begins to uncover the reality of their lives, and all three of them confront their perceptions of each other, as well as the facades they have built for themselves in the process.


It's hard to not think about the Mary Kay Letourneau case while watching this film, given that the relationship between Gracie and Joe is loosely based off of it. It certainly adds an element of discomfort to the film, which is clearly intentional as it challenges the viewer's own perception of the characters. The film wisely avoids condoning or condemning the relationship, instead allowing the viewer to form their own opinion. It comes at the risk of some viewers being put off by the subject matter in general, or not wanting to engage with how layered the film actually is, but it ultimately enhances the film's deconstruction of fact vs fiction, and gives way to some of the film's more compelling moments.


This film is all about how we as people view certain things, as well as the act of performance and how it intersects with real life. The film itself does a great job of blurring this line, and flips any preconceived ideas we might have about the characters and their lives on their heads. Most people might expect a film that deals with controversial relationships to have a more sensationalist bent as this is usually how these stories are presented in the media. Looking back at the Letourneau case, journalists reported on it with a more salacious tone, mainly because it was a young boy and an older woman and not the other way around. The film at first appears that it will be in line with the more melodramatic style we tend to see in films about scandals like the Letourneau case, with its piano-heavy score and occasionally glossy visuals, but it quickly reveals itself to be something different. An early indicator of this is found in the first 10 minutes of the film, when Gracie and Joe are preparing for Elizabeth's arrival and having a cookout. There is a brief romantic moment between the two before Joe leaves to man the grill. Gracie then crosses to the fridge as the score swells and then drops just before she delivers a line about hot dogs. This mirrors the film drawing in the viewer to what we can only assume will be something more dramatic and heightened, before pulling the rug out from under them and giving something much more rooted in reality.


The film's depiction of reality and the illusions put in place either by others or by ourselves is a major component of the film, and the way it explores this through the character of Elizabeth doing research for a role is such a good choice. In some ways, Elizabeth is a bit of an audience surrogate, as we discover new information about Gracie and her life right along with her for much of the film. But while she is trying to figure out who Gracie is, we are also finding out more about her own life. Both characters hide behind a facade, which is part of what makes both performances so compelling. As stated above, this film focuses in on performance, both in the context of acting, and in the context of the person we present ourselves as to others. These two are intertwined for the character of Elizabeth, as she uses the details of Gracie's life to figure out how to best portray her for the film she's about to start working on, but we also see a specific, almost curated, version of her when she interacts with other people. She is polite and well mannered to everyone she encounters, but there is a slight artifice to this, which makes the viewer question if she is being genuine, or if she's just doing this as a way to maintain her image as a celebrity. The moments of the film where Elizabeth is alone seem to hint that she isn't quite as upstanding as she seems, and gives her a sense of greyness that makes the character all the more fascinating. Similarly, Gracie also seems to be putting on a front, as she is often positive and cheerful when she's around Elizabeth. But we see that she is a bit more emotionally volatile in other moments, which has us questioning how she truly feels about certain aspects of her life. In both cases, the ambiguities of the characters drives the film, and gives the audience quite a bit to chew on in the process.


The film has so much depth and is so detailed, that it surprised me to find out that this is screenwriter Samy Burch's feature-length debut. Burch does such a great job across the board with this script, as everything feels so specific and unfolds so efficiently, but still poses questions for the viewer. It manages to lay so much out, but doesn't spoonfeed the audience either. There is a straightforwardness to the narrative, but there is so much going on underneath the surface for audiences to consider. This script is a top contender for my favorite of the year, as it is so sharp, fascinating, and has a great amount of depth that I truly appreciate.


Todd Haynes is a filmmaker I love, but I am never fully sure what to expect from him. He has made a rather diverse collection of films over the years, but he has such a gift for authentically presenting complex characters and relationship dynamics in his work. He also works with irony rather well, which is fully on display in this film. He does such a great job of playing with levels in the film, as he allows much of the film to feel more grounded and realistic, but has moments where the film feels a bit more intense and dramatic. These moments lure the viewer in, playing with our expectations, all before the film veers in a different direction. It keeps the viewer on their toes, and is so wonderfully handled by Haynes. While I would say there are other films from him that I prefer more, his direction here is still some of his finest work to date. It's so strong and assured, and showcases his talents beautifully.


The one-two punch of Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore in this film is incredibly effective, especially since their performances complement each other so well. Portman is a bit more reserved for much of the film, but the subtleties of her performance are still felt strongly. There are so many small details to how she portrays Elizabeth that really stood out to me, and the way she slowly adopts some of the quirks and characteristics that Moore brings to Gracie is quite impressive. Portman has a killer monologue near the end of the film that shows this transformative quality so powerfully, and had me glued to the screen due to her sheer screen presence. It's easily her best performance since 2016's Jackie, and is quietly effective. Moore has the showier performance for sure, but the emotionally unstable nature of the character plays to her strengths as an actress. At first, she seems a tad overpowering, but once she and the film itself settle into a nice groove, she puts forth some great work. Not to mention she gets to deliver a hammerblow near the end of the film that makes the viewer rethink everything they've seen so far. Her more open, vulnerable performance is such a great contrast to Portman's more guarded, subdued one, and the two of them together are electric.


Perhaps the biggest surprise of the film for me would have to be Charles Melton's performance as Joe. Melton is not an actor I was too familiar with going into this film, but he gives such a brilliantly understated performance here. He is able to portray such a specific mentality and a person who has experienced such specific trauma in a way that feels so real and precise. I have never seen an actor play someone who is stunted in the way that Melton does, and I was stunned by how effortless it seems for him. The character of Joe is an adult, but he still feels like a child in many ways. But instead of going for more of a man-child angle, Melton hones in on the ennui and sadness of the character, which makes for a far more compelling performance. There are quite a few unanswered questions with the character that I wish we would have got some closure on, but some of that mystery really fuels the character and makes him more intriguing to watch.


May December is a film that will likely divide viewers, largely due to its sensitive subject matter and strange tone. It is a challenging film, and is a bit slow in places, but it is so audacious and builds to an exceptionally strong finish. It is definitely the type of film that leaves you with a lot to ponder, but it is also one of the boldest and most memorable films I've seen all year. May December is absolutely brilliant, and while it may appear straightforward on the surface, it is more layered than one would expect, and offers up quite a bit to chew on long after the credits roll.


Rating: 4.5/5




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