MAY DECEMBER (2023)
20 years after their notorious tabloid romance gripped the nation, a married couple buckles under pressure when an actress arrives to do research for a film about their past.
Directed by Todd Haynes (Carol), May December is a melodramatic tale that subtly satirises Hollywood biopics, the fascination with true crime, and the symbiotic relationship between the public and the infamous. Set two decades after Gracie Atherton (Julianne Moore) was caught in a compromising encounter in a pet store supply closet with a teenage Joe Yoo (portrayed as an adult by Charles Melton), the film follows actress Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman) as she visits the now-married couple in their idyllic home to research her role in a biopic about Gracie. Berry, known for her portrayal of a crime-fighting veterinarian on the television show Norah’s Ark, is set to portray Gracie in an adaptation of her life that promises to be tasteful and respectful.
Gracie and adult Joe are introduced in the beginning of May December as a seemingly normal and happy couple. They reside in a charming home within a pleasant community, hosting barbecues for their neighbours and their kids. The first indication that something is amiss arises when they calmly discard human excrement that has mysteriously appeared on their doorstep.
Their relative peace is disturbed by Elizabeth’s intrusion into their lives. She slowly gets under the skin of those around her, unearthing long-buried truths about Gracie’s past that she has chosen to suppress. She conducts interviews with everyone involved, including her ex-husband and estranged son. Elizabeth’s motivations extend beyond Gracie and Joe; she believes the role could revitalise her career. She aspires to be a respected actress, despite her prestigious Julliard training, as she’s currently stuck on a bad TV show.
As the film progresses, we uncover more about Gracie’s backstory and her relationship with Joe, which started when he was in seventh grade. They were once the tabloid fodder, with Gracie becoming one of America’s most hated women after being arrested for their affair. They acknowledge that this negativity fuelled their decision to sell their wedding photos to a glossy magazine, enabling them to pay for a comfortable lifestyle. While they detest the tabloids’ intrusion and disapprove of her behaviour, the two maintain a mutually beneficial relationship.
May December skilfully manipulates the sequence of information presented to the audience. The film is rendered through an observer’s perspective, peering in on the lives of these three individuals from afar. Each scene introduces elements that may or may not be true, echoing the ambiguity of so-called “based on a true story” narratives. As the story unfolds, the distinction between reality and the couple’s perceived truth becomes increasingly blurred.
Portman’s portrayal of Elizabeth evokes a character straight out of BoJack Horseman. Her interactions with Joe and Gracie are painfully artificial, masking her ulterior motive of interfering in their relationship behind a façade of “finding the truth.” She shamelessly pries into the gory details of their affair, her intimate questions bordering on the obscene. As the film progresses, Elizabeth undergoes a subtle transformation, gradually adopting Gracie’s mannerisms, switching up her dress sense, and even changing her hair. This morphing is so subtle that it goes virtually unnoticed until the final act, when the two women appear dressed in identical outfits, their uncanny resemblance laid bare.
As Moore and Portman engage in a captivating battle within a modern interpretation of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966), Charles Melton (Riverdale) delivers a captivating portrayal of a man who was groomed in his youth. A 36-year-old man-child, Melton embodies the eternal adolescence of a soul denied the opportunity to mature. His physicality is remarkable, moves like a teenager trapped in a grown man’s body, slouched and uncomfortable in himself.
Joe’s interactions with his children, college-aged Honor (Piper Curda) and senior high school twins Charlie (Gabriel Chung) and Mary (Elizabeth Yu), highlight an underlying sense of maturity that surpasses his own. During a late-night conversation between Joe and Charlie, the truth emerges: he can’t connect with his son due to the abundance of opportunities afforded to Charlie, privileges that Joe could not provide for himself.
Beneath the surface of its relationship drama, May December dissects the world’s fascination with true crime. These people gain notoriety and wealth as the world revels in their misdeeds. With a less delicate touch, it also targets the morality of making biopics that view human lives as mere collateral damage to their self-proclaimed art. Portman’s phone call to her producer is shockingly obscene, as she criticises her young co-star for not being sexy enough to play Joe.
May December, though a work of fiction, bears striking similarities to the real-life case of Mary Kay Letourneau. Like Gracie, Letourneau spent years in prison before marrying Fualaau (who, like Joe, is of Asian descent). Gracie’s dialogue with Joe eerily echoes any interviews involving the real-life Mary Kay and Fualaau, consistently undermining his perspective and manipulating his narrative.
Samy Burch’s screenplay never loses sight of the fact that, although Joe and Gracie appear happy now, she’s a predator, and he was groomed. The truth is always lurking just beneath the surface of their lives. The writing never romanticizes or excuses their relationship for even a single moment. While May December has a predominantly lighthearted tone, the subject is never mocked or mined for laughs.
Despite the sensitive subject matter, Haynes infuses May December with melodramatic tropes that bear a striking resemblance to a Lifetime original movie. The suburban small-town setting and the reworking of The Go-Between’s dramatic soundtrack lend a campy veneer to the film. However, the trio of compelling lead performances and the grounded reality of the characters elevate May December beyond mere parody of made-for-TV productions.
May December is a film that will burrow itself beneath your skin. At first glance, it appears to be a trashy and melodramatic portrayal of a couple who sparked a media frenzy. However, digging deeper uncovers a psychological tale about human depravity and the world’s voyeuristic fascination with the suffering of others.
USA | 2023 | 117 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
director: Todd Haynes.
writer: Samy Burch (story by Samy Burch & Alex Mechanik).
starring: Natalie Portman, Julianne Moore, Charles Melton, Cory Michael Smith, Elizabeth Yu, Piper Curda & D.W Moffett.