‘May December’ Review: A Marvelously Messed Up Movie With Perfect Performances

Todd Haynes' newest film will likely make you squirm with its sheer moral audacity, but it's worth it for this daring drama.

Natalie Portman as Elizabeth Berry and Julianne Moore as Gracie Atherton-Yoo in May December. Francois Duhamel / courtesy of Netflix

It doesn’t take long for May December to announce itself as an intensely singular film; the second Julianne Moore huffs into her refrigerator, “I don’t think we have enough hotdogs,” while the camera rapidly zooms in and the clanging piano score bursts to life, the movie instantly becomes an enrapturing exploration of the morally dubious.

MAY DECEMBER ★★★★ (4/4 stars)
Directed by: Todd Haynes
Written by: Samy Burch
Starring: Natalie Portman, Julianne Moore, Charles Melton
Running time: 113 mins.

Director Todd Haynes outdoes himself with this newest project, the product of debut screenwriter Samy Burch’s twisted take on the Mary Kay Letourneau story. May December is hardly a one-to-one retelling of that saga, opting to take inspiration from it to create something novel. Natalie Portman stars as Elizabeth, an actress eager to do character research for her upcoming role as Gracie Atherton-Yoo, a woman infamous for, two decades ago, having had a relationship with a 13-year-old at the pet shop where she worked. To hone her craft, Elizabeth heads to Georgia, where Gracie (Julianne Moore) and her now-grown husband Joe (Charles Melton) have agreed to let her into their lives. The couple is a complex one, and while Gracie can’t help but be defensive around the new arrival, Joe struggles to answer many of the questions being posed to him. 

This is not a movie with particularly redeemable characters, but that’s by design. Haynes has mentioned that he wanted the film to create “a dedicated sense of discomfiture,” and he maintains that heightened, uncanny feel throughout. Portman’s performance switches from innocent curiosity to invasiveness in a split second, her character going to increasingly strange lengths to truly get inside the head of a woman who slept with a seventh grader. Moore, for her part, plays the victim marvelously, a sad, mercurial woman who thinks her pariah status unjustified and cruel. She babies her son about what food he eats but insists that her daughter needs a scale. The writing is sharp, Moore’s performance is  perfect, and the small world cultivated by the Atherton-Yoo family is fascinating. The sunny, hazy South bleeds into the screen, but it’s not just the humidity that keeps the characters sweating.

Julianne Moore as Gracie Atherton-Yoo with Charles Melton as Joe. Courtesy of Netflix

While Portman and Moore operate on a more melodramatic level (Haynes’ affinity for Douglas Sirk is blessedly traceable throughout), Melton undertakes one of the film’s biggest challenges. Joe is now 36, the same age as Portman’s Elizabeth, and the immensity of the decisions he made when he was too young to do so are beginning to hit him. He and Gracie have one daughter in college and a pair of twins about to graduate high school; his fate has been sealed since he was 13. His oncoming empty nest syndrome comes tangled with realizations about his own autonomy—and his lack thereof when he first met his wife. Melton plays it as painfully repressed, his understanding of how fucked up his situation is always threatening to bubble up to the surface but just shy of breaking through. 

Amidst this traumatic tension, though, Haynes and Burch manage to flavor this film with a dash of mildly obscene humor. Despite the movie’s beyond-taboo subject matter, May December makes you laugh at its sheer audacity. When Elizabeth goes through audition tapes from child actors hoping to secure the role of Joe, it’s squirm-worthy. She’s disturbingly fascinated by the layout of the pet store where Gracie and Joe met. When Gracie’s son from her previous marriage, Georgie (Cory Michael Smith, a standout in his few scenes), spills salacious details about his mother’s personal history, she’s all but happy to hear it. It’s uncomfortable, it’s off putting, it’s entirely illicit—and that’s why it works so well.

May December is not for people who aren’t willing to engage in works about awful people. The film is daring in its subject matter and its characters, and the actors bring just as much of a deft, disagreeable touch. It is a deeply messed up movie, and it’s all the better for it.

Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.

‘May December’ Review: A Marvelously Messed Up Movie With Perfect Performances