Since the 90s, I’ve loved immersing myself in the distinct worlds crafted by director and writer Todd Haynes, whether it’s through the lush, female-centric lens of Far From Heaven, or the grittier, queer-focused framing of Velvet Goldmine. Penned by Samy Burch, May December, which screened at the 61st New York Film Festival in October and premiered on Netflix December 1st, explores the domesticity between the long-married Gracie and Joe, the two once tabloid fodder because she was an adult woman having sex with and getting pregnant by a teenage boy.

Watch the trailer for MAY DECEMBER:

Todd Haynes' Film May December Showcases Julianne Moore And Natalie Portman

Inspired by the real life tale of the notorious Mary Kay Letourneau, it’s a subject ripe for Haynes’ vision, elevating basic cable movie salaciousness with a mix of satire and the melodrama he’s known for. Haynes’ sensibility is evident from the first scene, when the camera lands on a refrigerator accompanied by a screech of violins, and followed by Gracie’s banal pronouncement that they don’t have enough hot dogs for a barbeque. The approach leaves you intentionally off-kilter and wondering whether Burch and Haynes are being funny ha-ha or funny WTF, and letting you twist as you wrestle with that. Those choices mean May December is never uninteresting, but I wanted more dramatic weight from the movie.  

Once again Haynes employs to sublime effect his frequent collaborator Julianne Moore as Gracie Atherton-Yoo. Now in her late 50s, she and her 36-year-old husband, Joe (Charles Melton), have been together since he was 13 and she, 23 years older, was the married pet store employee with kids Joe’s age. Gracie and Joe’s oldest daughter, born while Gracie was in prison, is off at college and their twins Charlie (Gabriel Chung) and Mary (Elizabeth Yu) are about to graduate from high school. 

Gracie and Joe are beloved by their waterfront Savannah community, who have moved on from the couples’ origins story but for the hate mail packages they blithely receive periodically. Much like their families, everyone is content to keep what happened in the past and not talk about it. Into their decades of tranquility enters Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman), an actress best known for a forgettable television series, looking to observe the family as she prepares for playing Gracie in an independent film. Gracie gives Elizabeth a lot to work with, starting with the slight lisp and girlish voice that go with her diminutive name. 

Julianne Moore as Gracie and Charles Melton as Joe in MAY DECEMBER (C) Netflix

Twists On Victimization In May December

Burch’s script raises many questions about whether there’s a monster or merely a controlling, emotionally volatile housewife beneath that placid surface. Is Gracie a predator or a fantasist with a skewed reality? During an argument, she tells a stunned Joe he had been the seducer, not her. Maybe she’s a victim herself, at least if you believe what her older son from her first marriage tells Elizabeth about Gracie’s childhood. Her main occupation, other than overseeing the household, is cake baker for the townspeople, but often hired simply to give her busy work. When a customer cancels, she’s reduced to fits of sobbing. Joe, on the other hand, is solid, always compassionate and comforting to Gracie and the children. The twins love him, and Charlie perhaps pities him as well while loathing Gracie. There’s a heartbreaking scene between Charlie and his dad, hiding out on the roof smoking pot (Joe for the first time), with Joe agonizing over whether he’s been a good father. 

Elizabeth is not so much a character as she is a vessel, absorbing Gracie’s mannerisms, the lisp and transforming further as she studies Grace’s makeup routine. At first appearing benign, Elizabeth becomes colder and calculating. She treats Joe, kind and gentle, like a cat toy to be played with as long as it serves her purposes. Her presence and probing questions expose hard truths about Gracie and Joe's relationship.

Haynes and Burch are interested only in being discomfiting provocateurs, providing no resolutions to the questions with which they suffuse the movie. The one conclusion they’re willing to make is that guileless, protective Joe is the innocent here. Robbed of a childhood by Gracie and easily disposable to Elizabeth, he maintains his innate goodness.

Charles Melton, Todd Haynes, and Julianne Moore on the set of MAY DECEMBER (C) Netflix

May December's Golden Globe Nominations

While I wanted more Sirkian melodrama than satire, May December is, above all, a character study, and the performances are first rate. Melton, fresh off seven seasons of Riverdale, is subtle as the quiet emotional center of the movie, earning the audiences’ empathy as his turmoil and awareness slowly build. If he’s not nominated for Best Supporting Oscar, it will definitely be on everyone’s Snubbed list. 

Thankfully, it was announced with the recent unveiling of Golden Globe nominations that Melton is up for Best Supporting Actor there, though he faces some stiff competition from the likes of Ryan Gosling (Barbie) and Robert Downey Jr. (Oppenheimer) among others. May December also received Golden Globe nominations for Best Picture - Musical or Comedy, Best Actress in a Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy (Natalie Portman), and Best Supporting Actress (Julianne Moore).

Julianne Moore as Gracie and Natalie Portman as Elizabeth in MAY DECEMBER (C) Netflix

What Else Should You Know About May December?

Haynes’s specialty is knowing how to showcase female actors and each delivers a rich, fascinating portrayal.  The passive aggressive parrying between Moore’s Gracie and Portman’s Elizabeth crackles, and is great fun to watch. A new Todd Haynes movie is always exciting for film fans. His first feature since Dark Waters four years ago, May December is a return to form. 

MAY DECEMBER is now available on Netflix and is screening in select theatres nationwide.


Written By:

Shani R. Friedman

@shanestress (Twitter)

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Featured image: Natalie Portman as Elizabeth and Julianne Moore as Gracie in MAY DECEMBER (C) Netflix