Loosely based on the Mary Kay Letourneau scandal from the late 1990s, Todd Haynes’ May December opens by juxtaposing the lives of two very different woman. Their introductions to us are banal, as one (Natalie Portman) checks into a posh hotel while another (Julianne Moore) organizes a backyard dinner party. All of this occurs while Marcelo Zarvos’ score slowly rises before it crescendos after Moore’s character plainly remarks, “I don’t think we have enough hot dogs.”
This is the tone Haynes and screenwriter Samy Burch look to set early: one that is equal parts introspective human drama and salacious melodrama. Zarvos’ score at times sounds The National Enquirer‘s theme song, if it had one. While it would initially seem that the incongruent approaches would mix like oil and water, Haynes keeps his film together through careful plotting, a real reservation when it comes to concretion, and a triad of performances, all of which you could argue as some of the year’s best.
So, who are these two women? Portman is Elizabeth Berry, an actress who arrives at the home of Moore’s Gracie Atherton, where she resides with her husband, Joe Yoo (Charles Melton). Elizabeth’s intent is to study Gracie, who she is set to play in an upcoming “indie” film. Why is somebody ostensibly as remarkably unremarkable as Gracie worthy of a film? At the age of 36, Gracie entered a sexual relationship with Joe, who, at the time, was a 13-year-old friend of her son, Georgie. Gracie became pregnant, went to prison, had their baby behind bars, was released and registered as a sex offender, and later married Joe when he became of legal age. Now, they have three children together, with the younger two (Gabriel Chung and Elizabeth Yu) about to graduate high school. Gracie is nearing 60 while Joe is 36, the same age as Gracie when their relationship began. The two appear to be living a happy life together just as Elizabeth enters and begins to pluck the feathers in hopes of a look beneath the surface.
A movie like May December — one that revolves around a scandal as juicy as this one — traditionally loves to give us the entire, unadulterated situation via flashbacks and character monologues. Screenwriter Burch plays things more opaquely, never showing explicit interest in “what happened” between Gracie and Joe, who both worked at a pet shop when they became romantically entangled. Elizabeth gently probes both Gracie and Joe separately, sometimes while Gracie is baking in the kitchen or when Joe is on a walk in his idyllic, lakeside neighborhood , and both accounts are subjective and open to further reading.
Consequently, our perceptions of the three central parties changes frequently. Elizabeth seems like an actress whose career is stuck in neutral, and is hoping a promising role such as Gracie Atherton in a buzzy indie film could be her launchpad to awards. Then, she is invited to speak at a high school drama club, and a question from one of the students, asked in an uncouth manner, sets her up for a monologue that makes us look at the actress quite differently from that point forward.
Furthermore, Gracie might be the most difficult person on whom to get a read. A meeting between Elizabeth and Gracie’s first-born son Georgie (Cory Michael Smith, who is fantastic in all of two scenes) suggests that Gracie grew up sheltered, maybe abused, and harbors a naivety that has extended into adulthood. Later on, another scene will suggest she is and always has been a very subtly dominant manipulator. Most writers would race to confirm one of these angles as the truth. Not Haynes nor Branch. Both leave the messiness of the situation for us to decipher.
Things get increasingly complicated the more Elizabeth starts to mirror Gracie, mimicking her hand gestures, voice, and fashion in effort to sink into her role. A recurring symbol of May December is the ubiquity of mirrors, probably the most significant coming when Elizabeth and Gracie are standing in front of the latter’s bathroom vanity as Gracie teaches her counterpart-in-training how she applies her makeup. Natalie Portman has arguably the most challenging role in the film. Is Elizabeth “becoming” Gracie, or is more of herself getting revealed the most time she spends with her?
It says something that in a movie with Natalie Portman playing a woman with an identity crisis and Julianne Moore playing a registered sex offender that Charles Melton might runaway with the performance of the hour. Melton showed a lot of promise in Heart of Champions, where he played a quiet, troubled member of a college rowing team, but he rises to another level in May December. He’s the victim in this marriage, even if it might not initially appear so. Despite having a lavish home, he spends most of his days reserved from the world, tending to his butterfly collection and drinking beer while watching DIY shows. He looks like a man with a lot on his mind, but no agency nor confidence to reveal any of it. “I can’t tell if we’re connecting or if I’m creating a bad memory for you,” he tearfully tells his son as the two get high on the rooftop.
There’s more to May December I won’t dare reveal, but unlike most films in the streaming era, this one loans itself to active engagement and conversation both during and after. Metaphorically speaking, this year in film is in the bottom of the ninth with two outs, and Haynes’ latest offers us a grand slam of a finale where we least expect it (on Netflix, which has conditioned us to expect less and pay more). There was a time when films of this caliber saw a wide release in theaters and made serious money. Nowadays, be grateful they’re made in the first place.
NOTE: May December is now streaming exclusively on Netflix.
Starring: Natalie Portman, Julianne Moore, Charles Melton, Cory Michael Smith, Elizabeth Yu, Gabriel Chung, Piper Curda, D. W. Moffett, and Lawrence Arancio. Directed by: Todd Haynes.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!