With two powerhouse performances from Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman, May December is an exceptionally crafted melodrama from Todd Haynes
What makes an Oscar winner? Landmark performances from a talented cast? A memorable and compelling story and an equally memorable soundtrack perhaps? These are the unmistakable qualities that earn acclaim from the industry we love. So when Todd Haynes arrives and submits an offering like May December, we take notice.
Led by the incredible duo of Julianna Moore and Natalie Portman, Haynes has crafted a legitimate powerhouse of a movie. Based loosely on the story of Mary Kay Letourneau who was convicted of second-degree rape after she seduced one of her twelve-year-old students, the film walks a fine line. Neither vilifying nor vindicating the subject matter is an artistic minefield. But Haynes navigates it with a surprisingly fresh and open quirky take on the story. What we are left with is a solid but serviceable movie that delivers a powerhouse performance from Portman.
The film is deliberately quirky and often bizarre, even down to the overuse of its bombastic score. But the formula works to leave us with a true Oscar contender worthy of our attention. The film isn’t monumental by any stretch. Nor is it a forgettable affair. It’s the performances of its cast that are the true strengths here. And that in itself is worth buying tickets for.
Twenty years after their notorious tabloid romance gripped the nation, Gracie Atherton-Yu and her husband Joe (twenty-three years her junior) brace themselves for their twins to graduate from high school. When Hollywood actress Elizabeth Berry comes to spend time with the family to better understand Gracie, who she will be playing in a film, family dynamics unravel under the pressure of the outside gaze. Joe, never having processed what happened in his youth, starts to confront the reality of life as an empty-nester at thirty-six. And as Elizabeth and Gracie study each other, the similarities and differences between the two women begin to ebb and flow. Set in picturesque and comfortable Camden, Maine, May December is an exploration of truth, storytelling, and the difficulties (or impossibility) of fully understanding another person.
From the opening moments, Haynes subtly grabs us by the ankles and begins to drag us down a rabbit hole into this bizarre tale. The film starts with a subtle, yet intriguing introduction that is laced with tongue-in-cheek humor that at first, feels out of place. As does the sudden burst of the movie’s soundtrack that repeats often enough to feel jarring. The theme is powerful and is used repeatedly, often at the most inopportune moments. But after a while, we understand that this out-of-place trait is by design. At times it serves to remind us just how bizarre this tale is. While at others, it serves to lighten the tone and bring us back to reality. Truth is often stranger than fiction. And May December encapsulates that in spades. This is a story you just couldn’t make up – which is probably why it’s so intriguing.
As the synopsis suggests, Hollywood actress Elizabeth Berry (Portman) arrives at the home of Gracie Atherton-Yu and her husband Joe. After her release from prison, Gracie has thrown herself into creating a legitimate family dynamic for her young lover and their offspring. But with a movie about their life about to go into production and with Portman cast to play her, Gracie opens her home to allow Berry to get a true sense of their turbulent relationship. From there, we begin to unpack Gracie’s bizarre life. From her place in the community to her young husband’s lifestyle choices, the melodrama begins to play out in front of our very eyes.
At the heart of this nuanced bizarreness is Portman. Playing off of her perfectly cast co-star, Portman sinks her teeth into her character and delivers a career-best performance. From the moments where she strives to get into her character to the increasingly uncomfortable voyeuristic traits she displays, Portman hits the ground running and never looks back. You can tell she is relishing playing this character and by the time the credits roll we have been taken to school by a seasoned veteran hitting her prime. Throughout its thrifty 1h 53m running time, she delivers a string of profound monologues and deeply moving speeches that are as impressive as they are discomforting. And we can do little but marvel at her incredible range as an actor.
GUILTY OR INNOCENT
With Portman’s Berry scrutinizing and semi-mimicking every aspect of Gracie’s life, Haynes begins to cast a wide net allowing the audience to decide for themselves whether she was guilty of the crime she was convicted of. At times Moore’s Gracie displays predatory traits, many of which will convince you of her guilt. While at others, her emotional trauma oozes to the surface and casts a shadow of doubt. Even when Gracie’s facade slips, we are never sure if it is a deliberate act of self-sabotage or not. It’s masterful storytelling, and Haynes manages to wrap the plot in so many levels of intrigue, that unpeeling them one by one is a joy. This string of campy and twisted nuances leaves the outcome open to our interpretation, and that is a masterstroke in itself. The subject will be present in your mind long after the credits have rolled, and that is a hallmark of a great director.
While the film itself is ambitious but unremarkable, the cast delivers gold here. Haynes’ cast is phenomenal. Portman is a force to be reckoned with and Moore is creepily brilliant, but the supporting cast is equally impressive here. Charles Melton delivers a truly labored performance as Joe, who feels confined by the decisions he made as a teenager. The outcome of his “rape” shaped his entire life, even down to his children, who are now reaching adulthood. This is despite Joe all but being resigned to spending the rest of his days as a devoted father, all the while displaying all of the hallmarks of a child trapped in a man’s body. His innocence stripped from him.
In truth, this paints Joe as a genuine victim. With his children about to set off to college, he begins to reflect on his past and ponders what his life will be like now that his parental responsibilities are about to diminish. And lacking the wisdom of age and experience, it quickly becomes uncomfortable to watch. We feel for Joe in these instances because he is unprepared for the challenges that await him. Doomed to face life without purpose and devoid of the maturity he needs to take the next step. Melton slips into his character with zeal and connects to the audience in a surprisingly poignant way. This performance will leave its mark, and I look forward to seeing where his career goes next because, on the strength of this performance, the sky is the limit.
May December will undoubtedly turn into an Oscars powerhouse. And rightly so. It’s a beguiling and wonderfully layered melodrama that delivers powerhouse performances from Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman. This is a well-crafted vehicle designed to make its cast shine and Todd Haynes has pulled it off famously. The subject matter may be uncomfortable for some, but under Haynes’ watchful eye, it never feels like a witchhunt. Instead, we are left with a masterful character study of two women on different ends of the spectrum. Together they deliver magic. Apart they are enchanting. Both Portman and Moore play off of one another to create something truly memorable. And although the film itself may be unremarkable, this combined with Charles Melton’s profound contributions make this a certified lesson in acting.
Often bizarre, oddly humourous, uncomfortable to watch, and always indelible, MAY DECEMBER is one of those films that is easy to overlook. But its subject matter and glowing performances will stay with you long after the credits roll. Overall, it is a true exploration of one of the most contentious stories in living memory. One that ultimately allows you to decide who is guilty and who is innocent. This isn’t your typical popcorn fare. This is an Oscar-worthy melodrama of bizarre and twisted quality.
May December releases in UK cinemas on 17th November 2023 and will be available exclusively on SKY Cinema on December 8th.
Phil Roberts is the Owner, Daily Content Manager, and Editor-In-Chief of The Future of the Force. He is passionate about Star Wars, Batman, DC, Marvel, Star Trek, Indiana Jones, Ghostbusters, King Kong, and the Ray Harryhausen movies. Follow him on Twitter where he uses the force and babbles frequently!