THE STORY – Twenty years after their notorious tabloid romance gripped the nation, a married couple buckles under the pressure when an actress arrives to do research for a film about their past.
THE CAST – Natalie Portman, Julianne Moore, Charles Melton & Cory Michael Smith
THE TEAM – Todd Haynes (Director) & Samy Burch (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 113 Minutes
Todd Haynes knows precisely how to bring movie magic to the forefront regarding his leading ladies. Few stories can compare to his 2015 film “Carol,” which brought a gripping and effervescent love story between Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara to the big screen, truly solidifying his reputation as an all-time great director. With “May December,” he gives rise to a new relationship, but this time one that is filled with uncomfortable truths and heartbreaking realizations decades too late. It’s not at all what you’re expecting, and although his devoted fans probably want more of what Haynes has previously provided, “May December” is all the better for going in new and exciting directions.
Though it is never stated, “May December” is inspired by the real-life scandal involving teacher Mary Kay Letourneau and 12-year-old Vili Fualaau. They went to prison, had children, got married, and ultimately separated before Letourneau died in 2020. Similarly, more than 20 years ago, Gracie (featuring Haynes regular Julianne Moore with a lisp) was engaged in a love affair that dissolved her marriage and gripped the nation with her 13-year-old pet store coworker Joe (a dad-bod Charles Melton). When they eventually got caught, Gracie was sent to prison, gave birth, and became a social pariah. Now in 2015, they’re still together and get the occasional feces delivery to their Savannah home as a form of harassment for their prior behavior. But the public’s fascination has more or less stopped until Hollywood actress Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman) shows up at their doorstep. Berry is preparing for her next film role, where she’ll play Gracie, and wants to immerse herself in her subject’s life. Therefore, she asks personal questions so she can truly understand the couple’s story. Gracie and Joe seem reluctant but willing, while others feel very protective of their friends.
Bad Lifetime movies have been made about their story, but Elizabeth says this one, which focuses on their relationship from 1992-1994, will be different. It is hilarious then that Haynes really ups the melodrama in his own film with extreme zoom close-ups of his characters and a dramatic piano theme by Philip Rothman that has all the theatricality of a grand soap opera. Equally surprising is just how funny the film is, particularly the often tense dynamics between Portman’s Hollywood type and Moore’s reserved but feisty judged woman. It might just be the funniest film of Haynes’s career. Moore and Portman are beyond entertaining to watch, with both actresses bringing bite to their roles, even if their characters’ actions are limited. Portman, in particular, really gets to showcase her acting chops when delivering a monologue that has her copying Gracie’s lispy voice and bringing genuine emotion to her “performance” just by staring directly into a mirror.
While Elizabeth says she is here to do the story justice, her so-called objectivity has cracks in it as she chats with others in town and goes way beyond the two years she’s researching to get more information on Gracie. Gracie’s son Georgie (Cory Michael Smith), an eccentric singer who brings the most laughs with his no cares attitude, says his mother basically ruined his life. Others say people in the community make pity orders to Gracie’s bakery business just to keep her busy. Gracie herself shows her snappiness and often lack of regard for others, like when she, projecting her own insecurities, makes her daughter self-conscious about her arms while dress shopping. Moore is excellent as always, digging deep into Gracie’s character’s emotional ups and downs with occasional breakdowns and windups.
But it is Melton who really gets the moving beats in this film. He was taken advantage of at a young age, but it’s not until Elizabeth’s visit and his children’s high school graduation that he fully processes it. He didn’t get to experience doing stupid stuff with his friends or slowly become an adult because his youth and innocence were taken away from him. It’s also clear there is a constant power imbalance between him and Gracie, who often seems more like a nagging mother than a wife and patronizes him. Even Elizabeth, who lets her “research” go a little too far, shows she’s more of an adult than him, even though they’re the same age. Melton holds his own against these heavy hitters to provide a devastating performance that leaves the audience wanting more.
For whatever reason, Haynes pulls away from the real juicy moments too soon, like one great scene when Joe confronts Gracie over the nature of their relationship in an honest manner. Just when the feelings are finally about to be released, Gracie cuts the conversation off and walks away. We never get a resolution to this conflict or revisit it and its greater themes later. Perhaps that’s the point, as Joe never had much opportunity to defend and protect himself in the relationship. Why should he now? But one can’t help but feel cheated of the true greatness the film could have brought had it chosen to explore these conflicts in a more fulfilling manner. Samy Burch’s script also never straight-on tackles Gracie with all that she was complicit in, nor does the character necessarily want to dwell on the past. While some might see this ambiguity as fascinating, it can’t help but feel dramatically unsatisfying.
Bringing a lot of camp to the proceedings but needing a little more to get it over the edge into true greatness alongside his top-tier work, “May December” settles for being another solid entry from Haynes. His emphasis on the complexities of human nature continues to expand with new approaches, including using cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt instead of longtime collaborator Ed Lachman. When you have two Oscar-winning ladies helming a project such as this, audiences know they’re in for a treat, and Portman and Moore absolutely deliver on that front. But people will be even more pleasantly surprised by Helton’s work here, showing there’s plenty more he can deliver in the future.