December 1, 2023 / Netflix
Starring: Natalie Portman, Julianne Moore, Charles Melton, Cory Michael Smith, Piper Curda, Elizabeth Yu
Directed By: Todd Haynes
After their relationship ignited a tabloid saga two decades ago, Gracie (Julianne Moore) and Joe (Charles Melton) now lead a seemingly perfect suburban life. Their domestic bliss is disrupted when Elizabeth (Natalie Portman), a famous television actress, arrives in their tight-knit community to research her upcoming role as Gracie. As Elizabeth ingratiates herself into the everyday lives of Gracie and Joe, the uncomfortable facts of their scandal unfurl, causing long-dormant emotions to resurface. In May December, director Todd Haynes (Safe, Carol) explores one of the great talents of the human species: our colossal refusal to look at ourselves.
Review By Darren
Rating 3 out of 5
May December works because of its outstanding lead cast, most notably thanks to the sensational performance of Natalie Portman and Charles Melton, but the tone of the film prevents it from truly exploring the thematic material to its full potential.
Prolific filmmaker Todd Haynes returns with his latest film, this time enlisting the star power of Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore to lead the film. These two names alone are enough to get any viewer to click play when the film will drop on Netflix later this year, never mind the short description of the film teasing a tabloid romance that gripped the nation. And while there is no denying the powerful performances that drive the film from start to finish, most notably from young Charles Melton who stuns alongside Portman and Moore, the overall film is more likely to divide audiences. While the darker, comedic tone is an unique approach to the topic matter, the ideas felt scattered which prevented the film from finding something truly fascinating to say, unfortunately making this film feel like a missed opportunity of developing an insightful character study into such a controversial subject matter.
Elizabeth's latest movie has her portraying Gracie Atherton-Yoo, a woman who made news headlines three decades earlier for falling in love with a thirteen year old boy, her now husband Joe Yoo. Elizabeth travels to the small town where Gracie and Joe live to meet them, observe their lives and interview their friends and family to understand the woman she is about to portray and the scandal that defined her life, but her presence causes pressure on the couple and their family as they are forced to re-examine their past.
The film tackles difficult subject matter, but Haynes approaches the topic years after it occurred which provides distance for the story to unfold. While there is no denying the uncomfortable feeling you have as an audience member watching Gracie and Joe’s relationship on screen knowing that Gracie was an adult who entered an inappropriate relationship with a minor, the film does not show that time together, instead allowing the audience to make their own conclusions as Elizabeth comes to her own. Haynes portrays the story with an over the top, melodramatic camp that makes it feel like a soap opera at times. This results in some truly hilarious and uncomfortable moments, but overall it felt like a hindrance to the story. While there is no denying that both the characters of Elizabeth and Joe get the screen time to develop, the character of Gracie is left with the campiest moments that almost degrades her and prevents the audience from truly seeing this complex relationship from her perspective. And that is before the excellent musical score is factored in, as its placement sometimes works but also cheapens the moments it plays during because it makes some mundane moments overly dramatic to no effect. There is no doubt that this approach to the subject matter will work for some, as critic circle members are bound to have a field day with it making their year end lists, it sadly held back the film from being something truly fascinating for me.
What makes the film an enticing watch is the stellar performances from the lead trio, but most notably from Natalie Portman. As Elizabeth, the actress preparing to portray Gracie in an upcoming film, watching her study Gracie and her family and dive into the psyche of the character she is preparing to play is intoxicating. As an actress, Elizabeth is so focused on getting the character right, perfecting Gracie’s mannerisms, facial expressions and personna while she deconstructs this woman based on her observations of Gracie’s life and interviews with individuals who know Gracie. It’s an insightful character study by both Elizabeth, and by Portman portraying this actress getting lost in the preparation for her next role. Though, it's the way that Portman allows Elizabeth’s preconceptions of the story cloud her work as an actress and her inability to see the turmoil she is causing in both Gracie and Joe’s lives. It’s a cold privilege of a woman lost so far in her craft, willing to gain any little piece of insight to perfect her performance, no matter the cost. It’s a stunning performance that audiences have come to expect from Portman, and I truly think she could be the dark horse nomination for this year’s Academy Awards in the Best Actress race as it has been a while since Portman has been this stellar in a film.
Opposite Portman is Moore as Gracie, and like her co-star, she’s great in the role. Moore finds a childlike naivety to Gracie that combined with the accent and lisp, makes for a seemingly innocent character. Playing it straight, despite some truly hilarious and nonsensical moments for her character, Moore shines, even if the performances of Portman and Melton are the ones that audiences will remember. At the same time, Moore creates a controlling and calculating aspect of Gracie’s personality beneath the surface which pops up intermittently throughout the film, making the audience question truly how innocent Gracie is despite the facade she has put up for years. Sadly, Moore is given the least amount of screentime of the main characters which prevents her character from being truly understood by the audience, a missed opportunity for her to fully explore this complex character. While this works on one level as the film is from the biased view of Portman’s Elizabeth, it prevents Moore from giving a truly spectacular performance that we have come to know from her.
Acting alongside Portman and Moore, two of the finest actresses of their generations, is no easy task, but Melton not only does so excellently, he is the performances that audiences are going to remember after the film ends. His role has the most emotional complexity of the main characters, as his character is sending his children off to university without having fully grown up himself. He’s been thrust into adulthood without having been able to fully embrace being young, leaving him with conflicted feelings. Melton plays it calm and cool throughout the first two acts, before having the emotional outburst in the third act where he creates a raw vulnerability as he expresses his confusion towards his and Gracie’s relationship that hits you like a train. It’s an impressive and heart wrenching performance to say the least that perfectly lands the conflicting emotions of the subject matter, reflecting how conflicted the audience is feeling about the relationship between Joe and Gracie and the confusion within his character. It will no doubt be a breakout performance for Melton, launching him into an entire new category of potential roles that makes me excited for whatever role he takes next.
There is fun to be had with the over the top, melodramatic camp present in this film, and May December has its moments where this tone works well. But sadly, the overall experience felt cheapened by the tone, preventing the character study at play from reaching the dramatic depths it had the potential to achieve. Carried from start to finish by the outstanding performances of Natalie Portman, Julianne Moore and Charles Melton, May December meanders through its complex themes with an uneven tone that is engaging enough to watch but leaves lots of potential untapped.