The viewer inevitably becomes complicit in May December, Todd Hayne’s riveting, comic, yet poignant look at the ghoulish curiosity of the human mind, the blurring of lines between performance and feeling, and the moral red lines we cross to achieve our desires. It’s not a coincidence that there are so many mirrors in this film. Strong performances by Natalie Portman, Julianne Moore and Charles Melton are complemented by Christopher Blauvelt’s intense cinematography, an impeccable sense of timing, and an eerily lush score.
Julianne Moore portrays Gracie Atherton-Yoo, a lovely homemaker who bakes cakes and arranges flowers, and together with her husband Joe (Charles Melton), has raised three children, college student Honor (Piper Curda), and college-bound twins Mary (Elizabeth Yu) and Charlie (Gabriel Chung). Into the comfortable affluence of their Savannah home, they welcome Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman), an actor who is preparing to portray Gracie in an independent film on the relationship between Gracie and Joe, which began when 36-year-old Gracie and seventh grader Joe worked together in a pet shop. The film loosely references the case of Mary Kay Letourneau, a teacher who was convicted of the statutory rape of her 12-year-old student, whom she subsequently married when he was of age. Admirers of meta and mirrors will appreciate that like the character Elizabeth Berry, Julianne Moore is an actor portraying a woman who began a relationship with a minor and then married him.
The surface serenity of Gracie and Joe’s life reveals its cracks under the scrutiny of Elizabeth’s penetrating gaze, questions, and incessant notetaking. Haynes’ film raises many questions, without attempting to provide neat answers, and that is one of its pleasures. Why does Gracie allow Elizabeth access to her private life? Is this her attempt to control the narrative, or is she as naïve as she claims to be? Moore is fascinating as Gracie, wielding her strength and her vulnerability under the shield of her beauty and Southern charm. Natalie Portman radiates sincerity as Elizabeth, an actor dedicated to her craft, intent on researching the character she will depict, telling Gracie “I want you to feel seen and known.” Yet as the film progresses Elizabeth takes lurid pleasure in plundering the lives of Gracie, Joe, and their children, for the sake of a role, heedless of the impact of her words and actions.
In exploring the family dynamics of Gracie and Joe, Haynes also takes a sensitive look at issues of consent and abuse, augmented by Charles Melton’s moving performance. Gracie and Joe insist that they were and still are in love, a claim that is supported in Elizabeth’s interviews with Gracie’s lawyer, and her ex-husband Tom. Yet as he sits slumped on the couch, watching home improvement shows on TV, Joe seems depressed. Joe is a man of few words, and there is a slight hesitation when he speaks, as if the words don’t come easily, as if he is afraid to express his feelings. In his look and demeanor, Melton conveys a depth of feeling that Joe perhaps cannot even admit to himself. Gracie, in turn, seems to treat him at times as a child, monitoring his beer intake and assigning him chores, yet at other times, she compels his devotion through her tears and helplessness. Honor, Mary, and Charlie were born into this family and are inevitably impacted by it, each responding in a different way. Mary seems to be a happy teenager, oblivious to anything unusual or wrong about her parents’ relationship, while Charlie appears angry and hurt, telling Joe that he “can’t wait to leave home.” As Elizabeth avidly questions every aspect of the Atherton-Yoo’s life to prepare for her role as Gracie, no one will remain unaffected. And we are watching it all, repulsed and amused by turns.
US/2023/113 min/English with Hebrew subtitles
Director: Todd Haynes; Screenplay: Samy Burch; Story: Samy Burch, Alex Mechanik; Cinematography: Christopher Blauvelt; Editor: Affonso Gonçalves; Music: Marcelo Zvros; Cast: Natalie Portman, Julianne Moore, Charles Melton, Cory Michael Smith, Elizabeth Yu, Gabriel Chung, Piper Curda, D. W. Moffet, Lawrence Arancio