Film Review: May December
Director: Todd Haynes
Gloria Sanchez Productions, Killer Films and MountainA
In Theaters: 11.17
Movies about real people and real events can feel surprisingly fake if you don’t have a fresh angle on them, and May December may have found the most unique approach to capturing real that I’ve ever seen in a major film.
Elizabeth Berry (Academy-Award winner Natalie Portman, Black Swan) is a prominent film actress preparing for the role of a lifetime: She’s going play the lead in a film about Gracie Atherton-Yu, a woman who became a tabloid sensation when, at 36, she had an affair with Joe Yoo, a 13-year-old boy. It’s been 20 years, and Elizabeth is coming to Camden, Maine, to the home of the real Gracie (Academy-Award winner Julianne Moore, Still Alice), who has long been out of incarceration and is happily married to Joe (Charles Melton, Riverdale). The couple are preparing for the high school graduation of their twins, the youngest of their brood. Though Gracie and Joe insist that they are happy to have their side of the story finally told so they can show the world that they are a loving, happy couple, the family dynamic starts to unravel under the scrutiny of external observation. Joe has never truly confronted the events of his youth and is forced to question how he ended up an empty-nester in his mid-thirties. Meanwhile, Elizabeth and Gracie become engrossed in studying one another to an almost obsessive point, each trying to gain an insight into the other while being careful to remain in control of how they are seen.
Director Todd Haynes (Far from Heaven, Carol) approaches this darkly satirical take on the Mary Kay Latourneau case with a deliberate sense of detachment, as if we are watching a facade that doesn’t feel quite real. The musical score is beautiful and unsettlingly dour, setting the mood for an insightful and occasionally comical examination of multiple lives under a microscope, as well as people desperate to prove something to themselves and to everyone else. Screenwriter Samy Burch (The Hunger Games) has created rich characters and brilliant dialogue that tells us everything we need to know while still keeping us guessing at motivations and thought processes. Every time things start to become more clear, a new layer is peeled away, and we are left to reexamine what we think we know.
Portman, the ostensible lead, is terrific, keeping Elizabeth a bit enigmatic through most of the film until we really get to understand who she is toward the end. Elizabeth is our window into the strange world of Gracie and Joe, yet we gradually start to question how truly well adjusted she is. In the final section, we get a chance to see Elizabeth become Gracie in a stunning, all-on-take monologue that may be a new high mark for Portman’s illustrious career. Moore is given the really juicy role, however, and her deep dive into the psyche of the emotionally immature yet expertly manipulative Gracie is a tour de force. Moore’s best performances have a sense of honest reality that make her an inspired and illuminating choice to play a character whose entire life is based upon denial. Melton gives a quiet, stirring performance helping Joe to stand out as a truly good person who just wants to make everyone happy. His performance excels as a character who is just settling down from being thrust into parenthood at such a young age that he’s finally able to stop and question what he really wants out of life—and how he thought he could have known what he wanted at only 13.
May December is a thought-provoking and deeply affecting film that deftly balances tragedy with comedy and stands among the best work of all involved. It’s a smart and sophisticated film that raises a lot of interesting questions about how well we can truly know another person or their intentions and, most disturbingly, how easy it is to learn that we don’t really know ourselves. –Patrick Gibbs