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‘May December’ centers on scandal and society

From+left+to+right%2C+Elizabeth+%28Natalie+Portman%29+and+Gracie+%28Julianne+Moore%29+in+their+newest+film%2C+May+December.
Courtesy of Netflix
From left to right, Elizabeth (Natalie Portman) and Gracie (Julianne Moore) in their newest film, “May December.”
4.5 out of 5.0 stars

Few film directors are able to balance so many conflicting tones at once while making a cohesive, unifying experience for viewers. Todd Haynes, one of our greatest American directors working today, brings elements of fierce dark comedy, deeply layered melodrama and an undeniable throughline of sorrow to his latest masterwork.

“May December,” Haynes’ new Netflix film released Dec. 1, is a term for a relationship with a considerably large age gap. Inspired by a true story from 1996, the film follows the aftermath of a huge scandal that shook not just Savannah, Georgia, but the entire country — a 36-year-old woman in a relationship with a seventh grader. Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman), the kind of cutthroat actor who can hide her cruelest intentions with a modest glance, seeps into the lives of the now-older Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore) and Joe Yoo (Charles Melton) to prepare for a movie about the scandal.

Haynes’ films have always been keen on examining the space between unspoken words with an eye for the broader social implications of the characters’ actions. “May December” is many things, but most importantly, it’s an uncomfortable look at grooming and the way the media’s obsession with unpacking people’s trauma can only compound the victim’s pain.

Casting director Samy Burch makes the jump to screenwriting with such a strong, confident voice that one could easily think she’s written dozens of produced scripts before. Lines of dialogue that seem like throwaways all work toward building such a fascinating trio of characters to life. Every detail matters. Each character has such distinct, subtle traits and moments that say so much about who they are behind closed doors.

Gracie is an initially unsettling character — the kind where you can just immediately tell that something is off even before learning the specific details of her past. Moore brings her delusions to life with just the right amount of restraint, showing the subtle ways she manipulates Joe into feeling a false sense of comfort. Elizabeth, who initially keeps her cards close, slowly but surely reveals herself to be just as conniving in her own methods to get the performance she wants.

One of the film’s most important scenes is when Elizabeth visits a local school to give a talk about acting. After one of Gracie’s daughters, Mary (Elizabeth Yu), asks her why she would be interested in playing people she thinks are bad, Elizabeth goes on to talk about why she enjoys characters that can’t be easily pinned down.

Elizabeth’s fascination with playing ambiguously good and bad characters serves as a guise for her own questionable manipulation tactics to get the performance she wants. Labeling a character she’s portraying in the “grey area” is an act of giving herself permission to take the character wherever she wants to go — no matter how exploitative or inaccurate.

The way Elizabeth shapes and molds Gracie’s character into her own psyche shows how the two are alike in more ways than Elizabeth cares to admit. It becomes clear that Elizabeth is not really looking for answers, but a way to prepare for the role at any cost, including the loss of her own identity. 

In a film with Oscar-winning veterans like Portman and Moore, it’s “Riverdale”’s own Melton that stands out, giving one of the most haunting performances of the year. The balance Melton strikes between portraying an adult trying to convince himself he has matured to his age versus his childish mannerisms is completely devastating. After recently winning Best Supporting Actor at The Gotham Awards and the New York Film Critics Circle Awards, it’s no wonder when watching “May December” why he’s destined to become the critics sweeper this year.

Joe’s relationship with his own children, two of whom are graduating from high school, are the crucial moments that unlock the emotional baggage he shields from Gracie. The trauma that Joe feels in knowing that he never got the chance to fully experience his childhood, being forced to grow up before even entering high school, has never left him. However, there’s hope that, with his children graduating, they can live the life he never got.

Our obsession in engaging with the media frenzy surrounding the private lives of people often only hurts the people these stories claim to support, like Joe. When Haynes’ deliciously thought-provoking conclusion comes to a close, the audience is left to think about their own complacency: in not speaking up, engaging with tabloid media moments and ignoring what’s right in front of them.

While there are plenty of absurdly funny moments to be found in “May December,” the ultimate feeling that Haynes leaves us with is deep, deep sadness. It’s an inescapable fate, much like the invisible prison bars that keeps Joe from ever experiencing a full life.

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