May December is the story of an actress researching a role. Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman) is very excited about a movie that is about to start filming. She will be starring in an adaptation of a scandal that occurred 25 years ago. In 1992, Gracie Atherton (Julianne Moore) had an affair with Joe Yoo (Charles Melton). The primary issue with this encounter was that Joe was only 13 at the time, while Gracie was 36. Gracie ended up having Joe’s child while serving time in prison, and the two later married upon her release. Elizabeth will now portray Gracie in the new film, and as such wants to meet the people involved with the story. Elizabeth’s hope is that these interactions will give more authenticity to the performance. But as Elizabeth becomes ingrained in Gracie and Joe’s life, she begins to discover new details and nuance around what actually happened.
What works in May December is the awkward tension propelled by exceptional performances. Director Todd Haynes (Carol, The Velvet Underground) purposefully wants to make the audience uncomfortable. Portman and Moore are fantastic as two women trying to size each other up. They dance around oddly phrased perceptions and remarks while maintaining pleasantries about the bizarre situation they find themselves in. Haynes then uses a fantastic score by Marcelo Zarvos (Deep Water, The Guilty) to exaggerate the weight of particular interactions with blaring staccato notes. The mix of script, acting, and soundtrack provides an unsettling experience that both subverts expectations while also seeming somewhat plausible. This tightrope act keeps May December engaging throughout as watchers muse how the story will conclude.
Audiences who feel uneasy about very taboo topics may opt to avoid May December. The entire premise is off-putting, and the film never shies away from it. May December never normalizes or justifies the happenings, but rather attempts to present fictional perspectives. However, given the questionable moral and ethical implications of almost every character in the story, it may be hard for audiences to connect with the material. As such, May December feels more like an actors’ showcase for Portman, Moore, and Melton rather than narrative story.
May December is a tough and rough movie. That said, for people who can stomach the subject matter and social awkwardness, they will be rewarded with some fantastic stagecraft full of subtlety.
Recommended if you Enjoyed: Carol, Tar, A Marriage Story
May December is now available to stream on Netflix.