While “May December” has many flourishes, like a borrowed heightened musical score, jokes about hot dogs, Julianne Moore’s lisp, Natalie Portman’s mimicry, and other Todd Haynes trademarks, it is still a story of a boy’s childhood being lost to a sexual predator. But beyond that, it is a story of childhood being lost and mangled in many forms – although that is not quite the case for every character. Of course, the centerpiece is how Charles Melton’s Joe finally starts to see what Moore’s Gracie really did to him when he was 13. Yet while his sexual ‘relationship’ with Gracie and their eventual family ended what was left of his childhood, Joe never really got to be a child even before that, having had to care for both his mother and sister while his father was working. Though Gracie may not be the most trustworthy or unbiased source when she says Joe “grew up too quickly” before they ever met, there is some kernel of truth to it anyway.
The same can be said of how Gracie’s own childhood was mangled – regardless of whether the most salacious theories about what her own brothers might have done to her at 13 are true. But that aside, Gracie is still someone who moved around a lot as a child, had parents who didn’t seem to instill the healthiest values in her, and jumped right out of high school to marry a college graduate. As much as that might not excuse seducing a seventh grader, Gracie was still fairly lost as a child herself – whether that includes outright abuse or not – before she destroyed Joe’s childhood herself.
While the cycles of childhood trauma and abuse are clear in Gracie and Joe, that would seem to make Portman’s Elizabeth even more of an outsider to them. She is a well-off and seemingly well-adjusted actress, so it might be a reach for her to understand Gracie and Joe entirely – and indeed, it ultimately is. What’s more, it kind of makes her look like a distraction while the movie goes into far deeper places with Joe and Gracie, at least at first glance.
Watching “May December” in theaters two weeks ago plays somewhat differently from rewatching it on Netflix this weekend. That is partly because, in between, Portman talked to Variety about how she “would not encourage young people” to become child actors, which makes sense considering how her own struggles with being sexualized as a child actor were well documented. But with that reminder, it sheds new context onto Elizabeth as well, whether or not it was written or performed that way. On second viewing, it’s easier to catch how Elizabeth started as a child actor herself, to the point she made a whole presentation to persuade her academic parents before she even turned 10. She and Joe are now both 36 years old, yet while Joe was made to start a family as a teen, Elizabeth was educated at Juilliard. Nonetheless, it’s clearly not as if Elizabeth had a conventionally normal childhood growing up either.
It might be a big reach if Haynes ultimately wants to equate how the Hollywood industry warped Elizabeth as a child with how Joe and Gracie’s childhoods were wrecked. As far as we know, Elizabeth wasn’t abused or molested, which might merely be the same ‘accident of luck’ Portman claims to have had in real life. Still, between Elizabeth surely carrying something on with her film’s director, judging how sexy the 13-year-olds auditioning for Joe are without batting an eye, and dismissing her tryst with the real Joe as “just what grownups do,” this is someone whose upbringing in Hollywood twisted her around to some noticeable extent. Her self-delusion is far more evident when we finally see just how trashy the movie she’s done all this for really is, despite her oblivious insistence that she’s ‘getting more real’ – and despite how her private reading of a letter from Gracie shows actual talent that no larger audience will ever get to see.
As much as her upbringing and self-denial have nothing on what forged Joe and Gracie’s upbringing and denial, it is a different form of how unacknowledged and unaddressed warped forms of childhood can destroy any hope of a normal adulthood. In the end, these three characters are in various stages of dealing with their upbringing – Joe finally bringing himself to start facing what happened, though it may already be too late, Gracie knowingly forcing it all down on some level to look more secure than she really is after 30+ years of practice, and Elizabeth perhaps so in denial about what she’s really doing that she isn’t even knowingly forcing it down.
“May December” is a collective examination of what the loss of childhood and a ‘normal’ way of growing up has done to these three people, with some on more extreme levels than others. But perhaps the most significant illumination of that theme, and the most surprising in context, is their contrast with characters whose childhood wasn’t lost – namely, Gracie and Joe’s own children. Elizabeth’s research actually isn’t Gracie and Joe’s main concern, as they throw themselves more into their kids’ upcoming high school graduation and how they will be empty nesters afterward. In most movies about this kind of subject matter, one or more of their kids would be deeply scarred by their parents and be destined to repeat their mistakes and trauma – much like how Gracie’s eldest son from her first marriage and Joe’s ex-best friend was ruined when the scandal broke. But despite how Gracie gave birth to their first daughter in prison and despite how their three kids are clearly old enough to know what happened, none of them seem scarred by it at all. If anything, Gracie inflicting her own body issues onto her daughters is the clearest example of how her past distorted her parenting. Yet all her other traumas and Joe’s seem to have skipped a generation as far as we can see.
Because the bulk of their childhood took place after the scandal died down, and because they are surrounded by a community of friends that seem to coddle and manage Gracie against reality – including Joe himself – their kids appear largely sheltered from what happened. Unlike their parents, they are all about to go to college, and none of them have had to marry someone older than them. And even though the youngest daughter, Mary, likely has other issues with her mom, she still loves her enough to turn against Elizabeth on her behalf after she makes some disparaging implications against Gracie at her school. As for her twin brother Charlie, he winds up assuring his father he’ll be okay, although Joe has had every reason to fear deep down he wouldn’t be.
Nonetheless, as stuck and lost as Gracie and Joe have been for decades, by some miracle, they have sent all their kids into the world with the chances, opportunities, and lack of scars that neither of them ever had. That might also seem like a bit of a reach, all things considered, especially since Joe has likely had to do the bulk of the caretaking – just as he has all his life. But it also serves as the only real sign of hope “May December” leaves us with, and as guarded optimism that maybe the cycles that destroyed Joe and Gracie as children have at least not been repeated.
Of course, we can only go by what Haynes and writer Samy Burch show us, which obviously isn’t the entire story. Given how both Joe and Gracie never had to fully reckon with themselves or each other about what happened and are still paying for it, maybe coddling their kids from dealing with it will come back to haunt them later in life, too. Even so, they have a better chance of withstanding it than their parents ever could have, or like someone such as Elizabeth could.
“May December” is a movie that only pretends to look and sound like the trashy, exploitative, shallow retelling of this story that Elizabeth’s movie actually is. Of course, some would argue there’s a fine line between mocking a shallow version of a story and becoming the very thing it is mocking. But Haynes’ final verdict may be that no movie or actor, whether they are of Lifetime or Oscar-bait quality, is equipped at all to give someone’s true story true justice. Likewise, it may be too hard for a movie to fully recapture what the loss of childhood and a safe upbringing really feels like, whether from abuse, instability, a toxic environment, or an exploitative industry. Nonetheless, “May December” shows there’s more than one way for a childhood to be taken away – and yet that even against all odds, it still doesn’t have to be.
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