Vague Visages’ May December review contains minor spoilers. Todd Haynes’ 2023 Netflix movie features Natalie Portman, Julianne Moore and Charles Melton. Check out the VV home page for more film reviews, along with cast/character summaries, streaming guides and complete soundtrack song listings.
The term “Lynchian” is so often used and yet rarely applied accurately in film criticism. Often deployed to describe something unsettling or surreal, it’s thrown around as an adjective purely in conjunction with a film’s aesthetics and nothing resembling the recurring narrative obsessions of filmmaker David Lynch, the journeys into the dark heart of suburbia or the blurring of lines between actor and character. Todd Haynes, the most chameleonic director in American cinema, has returned with a juicy tabloid melodrama, which — upon closer inspection — reveals itself to be fittingly Lynchian in style and substance. May December has the initial feel of a heightened, vaguely trashy soap opera, revealing new layers to its central figures the more they question their perceived roles.
May December stars Natalie Portman as Elizabeth Berry, a famous TV actress researching her upcoming lead role in a prestige project where she’ll portray Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore), a pet store owner who made national headlines two decades prior after her relationship with a seventh grader went public. It was a notorious scandal within the film’s world, one very loosely based on the real-life case study of Mary Kay Letourneau, but became an enduring fascination due to how Gracie is still together with the boy, the now 36-year-old Joe (Charles Melton), with their children on the brink of graduating from high school. Haynes’ controversial characters are now at the respective ages where most people wouldn’t think twice about their age gap, allowing them to adopt a mundane suburban lifestyle that Elizabeth’s arrival begins to unravel.
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Haynes’ filmography isn’t lacking in its rich portrayals of flawed women, but Elizabeth and Gracie still rank highly as two of his most fascinating subjects; people whose lives are artificially presented to the world yet whose social standing couldn’t be more different. Both women are unreliable narrators — Portman’s method actress is preoccupied with dramatizing a character closer to the more scandalous tabloid rendering of events, despite extensive interviews with all parties involved, while Gracie’s oft-repeated refusal to dwell on the past is an obvious defense mechanism to avoid framing her marriage as one with criminal origins. Moore’s character maintains that she was the one who was “seduced” by a 13-year-old, in one of many highly charged dialogue scenes that will provoke breathless Twitter discourse. (May December is, of course, too intelligent to resort to being provocative for provocation’s sake.)
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But whereas Gracie’s flaws are barely obfuscated from public view in May December, Elizabeth is far better at hiding hers. Haynes reveals early on that Portman’s protagonist is having an affair, for example. This is likely why Elizabeth throws herself into the role of someone whose messiness is front and center — someone she believes doesn’t need to hide behind a constructed image because her dirty laundry has already been aired. There’s an unspoken tension between both women about who is in control of this narrative, with Gracie fed the lie that her side of the story will finally be honored (away from public view). Meanwhile, Elizabeth asks for tours of the pet store supply closet where the statutory rape took place, miming an over-the-top seduction to herself before falling into a fit of giggles. There is no tasteful way of telling this story, and May December’s most cutting critique might be about actors’ obsession with true-crime narratives and mining real-life horrors to advance their careers with no genuine affection for the people whose stories they claim to be honoring.
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The pet store scene is one of many where a lesser director would directly court controversy, but Haynes isn’t a lesser director; every sequence in May December which sounds charged on paper digs into the disconnect between an actor and their material, and their attempts to shape real-world narratives. This means that when the dark jokes do arrive — such as Elizabeth asking for “sexier kids” to be cast alongside her in the film, after seeing audition tapes from dorky tweens — they’re so grounded within actorly delusions about their perceived importance in telling stories that they’re not liable to cause simplistic offense. I can imagine that this wasn’t necessarily a given in the translation from script to screen, but Samy Burch’s May December screenplay has met the perfect match in Haynes — a filmmaker who uses every line to expose the artifice of these characters’ lives, even as he borrows the heightened visual grammar of television soap operas (the only other place where dark subject matter can be explored in-depth without sacrificing a more casual tone).
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My gut reaction upon leaving May December was that this was Portman’s best performance to date — allow me some more distance from my viewing before I make the definitive assessment — and yet I couldn’t help but feel both leading actresses were overshadowed by Melton, the latest teen TV star to successfully make the jump to prestige, auteur-driven cinema. Joe is the most unguarded character within the drama, one who doesn’t feel an obligation to hide any interior emotions, which on paper makes him sound less intriguing than the two leads. Melton’s directness proves affecting in contrast. He’s not written as a victim so much as a man slowly realizing his life has passed him by, because it started too early. Melton’s Joe offers a poignance that perfectly counterbalances the archness elsewhere and only grows in resonance the more it becomes apparent he’s being used by all around him.
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It’s through Joe’s character arc that May December becomes something more incisive, finally giving a voice to someone whose point of view has been erased in every version of this story. Perhaps the sharpest bit of commentary within the drama is that the insights of Melton’s character are still of little consideration to Elizabeth — the perfectly vacuous avatar for a Hollywood culture that cares more about finding a way to monetize scandal than reckoning with the harrowing nature of the stories being told. I highly suspect we won’t see a richer character study this year.
Alistair Ryder (@YesitsAlistair) has been writing about film and TV for nearly five years at Film Inquiry, Gay Essential and The Digital Fix. He’s also a member of GALECA (the Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association), and once interviewed Woody Harrelson, which he will probably tell you about extensively, whether you want to hear about it or not.
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