We’re smack dab in the middle of awards season, and with that comes the avalanche of potential critical darlings and powerhouse performances. However, I wouldn’t exactly call Todd Haynes‘ May December a critical darling. Why? Because its A-list cast will bring moviegoers to theaters (or at least they’ll stream it on Netflix). Starring Julianne Moore, Natalie Portman and Charles Melton, May December broaches uncomfortable territory with quiet intensity and dark humor.
About May December
Here’s a synopsis per Netflix Media Center:
“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.”
Moore, Portman and Melton deliver compelling, layered performances that’ll surely garner some nominations. Moore is masterful, and her emotional outbursts as Gracie are viscerally felt — searingly, achingly painful, even. Portman’s work pokes fun at the self-serious actor and their “process.” How far would you go to become a character? She nails the “phony actor” portrayal, and one specific monologue later in the film spotlights her vast talent. Moore and Portman’s characters, Gracie and Elizabeth, are textbook narcissists. They aren’t particularly sympathetic. Both actresses showcase those nuances with the steady hand of a pro.
However, Melton emerges as the movie’s MVP. He blew me away. He knocks it out of the park in his depiction of a man in his 30s who’s emotionally stunted, questioning whether he was taken advantage of by an adult woman in his teens. It’s abundantly clear we’re meant to root for Joe. Joe ponders his identity and who he is without Gracie. That’s a significant theme in May December — identity. These characters refuse to engage in any kind of self-reflection or take responsibility for their actions.
Melton’s work is understated, finely tuned and rippling with the emotions of someone who doesn’t know how to handle them. Elizabeth’s arrival blows the lid off what he’s been suppressing for decades. His confrontational scenes with Gracie are engrossing.
Samy Burch and Alex Mechanik’s story delves into these characters’ avoidance of reality. Gracie puts up walls to keep it out, as do Joe and Elizabeth. Elizabeth tries to find something “real” in her preparation to play Gracie in a movie. However, she can’t grasp it because she views Joe and Gracie as “test subjects” and a “story,” not actual, fully realized humans. Additionally, the film examines consent and unfair power dynamics through the lens of Gracie and Joe’s unconventional (and, let’s face it, predatory) relationship.
Each scene is packed to the brim with tension; it’s always simmering beneath the surface, ready to boil over and cause mayhem. It’s downright uncomfortable, and sometimes, that’s where the dark, satirical humor shines. It makes you squirm.
Beneath that sharp comedy lies a tragic tale of loneliness and ostracization. The cinematography lends itself to this with a dreamlike quality. The softened focus perhaps represents Gracie and Joe operating on autopilot for two decades and living in their own world while avoiding the harsh reality and ramifications of their affair.
There’s something strangely intimate and isolated about May December. Even the intimacy between Gracie and Joe feels devoid of, well, intimacy. The music is sometimes jarring, fitting the film’s themes and cinematic tone. As for Haynes’ directorial style, he loves to examine characters in their most private moments, honing in on their isolation.
However, Haynes, Burch and Mechanik don’t take us all the way there with what the movie tries to say. We skim the surface before going a foot deep, but the creative team could’ve stood to plunge further into the film’s depths. Maybe Haynes struggles to juggle too many balls in that regard.
That said, May December is an emotionally complex, uncomfortable film that’s worth a watch. If anything, for the masterclass performances from its cast. The narrative moves slower than some might like, but that slower pace allows us to stay focused on these characters for as long as possible. Sit with them in the tension. Wallow in their repressed pain. They’re messy, flawed and entirely captivating.
May December is now in select theaters, with a wider release slated for December 1, 2023, only on Netflix.
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This review was originally published on 11/17/23.