Writer’s note: The second paragraph of this article (just below the first image) contains a basic outline of the film’s premise. There are no spoilers that weren’t already inferred in the film’s own trailer. However, if you want to completely avoid potential spoilers, skip over the second paragraph.
There’s few things more indulgent than films about filmmaking. Particularly, it’s films about acting which make people roll their eyes more than anything else. We see actors congratulate themselves on talk shows, red carpet events, and award shows, so why would we want to see actors play thinly veiled versions of themselves on screen? After all, there are many professions with much greater societal use such as doctors, lawyers or architects (which is probably why so many film and TV characters are those three professions). Very few people enjoy watching films claiming that acting is some grand service to humanity. However, what if a film were to use acting as a vessel to reveal deeper aspects of the human condition? This is where Todd Haynes’ May December (2023) comes into play.
Based very loosely on the story of sex offender Mary Kay Letourneau, we are introduced to Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman), a famous actor who has been cast to play a woman named Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore). Gracie is noteworthy for her shocking and controversial past, which consisted of her being in a sexual relationship with a 13-year-old Joe Yoo (Charles Melton) back in the early 1990s. This case of statutory rape resulted in Gracie’s incarceration, where she ultimately gave birth to Joe’s daughter. Upon her release, Gracie continued her relationship with Joe, resulting in two more kids, a divorce from her husband, and estrangement from her first kids. Once Joe came of age, the pair wed, carrying on a seemingly normal marriage, despite the constant tabloid gossip and judgement from the community. To prepare for the film, Elizabeth reaches out to Gracie (and all involved in the scandal) intending to understand her feelings and bring life to the role. However, Elizabeth’s research reveals far more than she could’ve imagined.
From a directorial perspective, Todd Haynes’ work has been consistently creative and provocative. With the likes of Far From Heaven (2002), I’m Not There (2007) and Carol (2015) under his belt, Haynes has proven himself to be quite the chameleon, in that he’s not wedded to a specific style, yet everything he does is wonderfully refined. Each film he delivers feels like he’s experimenting, but he masters what he’s attempting on the first try. May December is no different, as Haynes lets the performances take centre stage in a way which could overshadow the storytelling vision. However, he somehow remains in control, as the performances are subtly dictated by the minimalist camera work, sharp composition and glacial editing. Letting the cast chew the scenery while also maintaining a grip on the steering wheel is a difficult balancing act, but Haynes makes it look relatively easy.
That being said, it’s hard to deny how excellent the key performances are, as they are the main elements viewers will remember from the film. Specifically, Natalie Portman arguably delivers her best and most nuanced performance since Black Swan (2010). Not only does she highlight her own character’s fears, thoughts and desires, but also slowly adopts the traits and motivations of Julianne Moore’s Gracie, allowing us to see and feel her hypnotic transformation. Whether she’s doing grand acts of appropriation, or just tiny moments of mimicry, Portman’s journey into becoming Moore is both transfixing and unnerving. If May December only had Portman’s work at the helm, it would be impressive enough, but amazingly Charles Melton completely steals the show. The young actor, known mostly for the trashy Netflix show Riverdale (2017 – 2023), is now revealed to be one of the most promising performers of his generation. Melton delivers a powerful and heartbreaking turn as Joe, displaying the undeniable pain of a man who’s youth was heinously stolen from him.
It’s through these wonderful performances that May December shows off its greatest strengths, unpacking themes of trauma, arrested development, manipulation, exploitation, truth and empathy. This is key to what makes May December work as a human story before being an acting analysis. In fact, the view of acting is rather critical, as Elizabeth’s toxicity is made to feel no more or less invasive than anything Gracie ever did. One is a socially accepted form of manipulation, and the other is taboo, yet both are presented as equally destructive. In the end, May December shows that the exploiter may win all the battles, but become as damaged as the victim they leave behind. The only thing left for the manipulator to do is continue down their dark path, which ultimately makes empathy for them harder to achieve.
It’s a surprisingly dark and foreboding story, leaving very little room for any joy once the credits roll. Even the moments which should represent the happiest in any person’s life are marred by the collective horror of past events, making it very difficult to feel anything but total emptiness. This is obviously intentional, as the reality of what happened to Joe slowly creeps into the viewer’s mind at the same rate it creeps into his. From this angle, May December lightly comments on the exploitative nature of filmmaking itself, as one has to wonder why anyone would want to view a criminal such as Gracie in a glamorous and sympathetic light. Interestingly, it’s not too hard to believe, as there are so many films about real life people who the culture definitely shouldn’t be idolising. May December confronts the viewer with this reality, ensuring that we’ll definitely question whether we should support the next true crime film we see.
May December isn’t without its lighter touches, as Haynes sprinkles in some extremely dark comedy. The subject is certainly no laughing matter, but seeing a vapid actor politely study an outwardly toxic family so casually is somewhat amusing. This is also used to soften the cringeworthy filmmaking analysis, as it’s making a delightful mockery of method acting. The term is never outright said, but the intention is fairly evident, and that works in the film’s favour. By simply implying the critique of method acting, May December is able to keep the indulgence in check, thus remaining focused on the more heartbreaking dramatic elements.
May December is an artful performance which will likely be overshadowed by bigger and more exciting films this year, but that doesn’t take away from its achievements. It’s a quietly affecting gem which plays with some rarely discussed emotions.
Best way to watch it: Uncomfortably.