Inside a sprawling home on Tybee Island near Savannah, Georgia, Gracie (Julianne Moore) is fretting that she may not have enough hot dogs for the teenagers descending for a cookout. But her nerves are far more likely inspired by the famous television actress, Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman), who is coming to observe her and her family for a biopic based upon her scandalous relationship with a 13 year-old boy, now her 36 year-old husband Joe (Charles Melton, TV's 'Riverdale,' "The Sun Is Also a Star"), in “May December.”
Laura's Review: A-
Jumping off from a story by Alex Mechanik, fledgling screenwriter Samy Burch finds an ingenious way to focus the issues of the 1996 Mary Kay Letourneau scandal through a “Persona”-like prism, the character of Elizabeth initially seeming like the audience’s way into the story gradually becoming part of an intricate triangular portrait. Director Todd Haynes ("Far From Heaven," "Carol") teams up yet again with Julianne Moore, the actress now having appeared in six of his films since his 1995 debut “Safe,” and works for the first time with Natalie Portman. And while composer Marcelo Zarvos replaced Haynes’ long time collaborator Carter Burwell for his “Dark Waters,” here Haynes has shaken things up even more by having Zarvos adapt Michel Legrand’s score from the 1971 film “The Go-Between” and it is one of the film’s most arresting components with its swirling cascade of menacing piano notes. All this and the film can be quite funny.
When Elizabeth meets Gracie and Joe in their backyard, she comes literally bearing a box of shit, the decreasing type of harassment they became used to which Elizabeth found sitting at their front door. Elizabeth wanders about, pen and notepad in hand, Gracie’s friend Rhonda (Andrea Frankle) telling her that Gracie ‘knows what she wants,’ while Elizabeth returns stilted verbiage about the ‘complex and human story’ she hopes to tell in her seductive, smoky voice. Meanwhile we’ve observed Gracie ordering Joe about the kitchen and Joe watching one of Elizabeth’s commercials on a loop. That night, Gracie will complain that Joe smells of smoke when he gets into bed. He reminds her that they have a gas grill.
Gracie is clearly uncomfortable with Elizabeth’s prodding, demanding to know why she is asking about her relationship with her kids from her first marriage when the film is concentrating on the two years of the affair and her subsequent imprisonment. Meanwhile, Elizabeth is meeting with neighbors, like Mr. Henderson (Charles Green), Gracie’s ex-husband Tom (D.W. Moffett) and the owner of the pet shop where Gracie and Joe both worked (Portman’s one-sided recreation of a sex scene in the pet shop stock room is hilarious in its over the top ‘Red Shoe Diaries’ earnestness). A chance run-in with Gracie’s son with Tom, Georgie (Cory Michael Smith, "Carol"), tells a very different story than what Gracie has, just as a joint trip with Elizabeth to buy her daughter with Joe, Mary’s (Elizabeth Yu, "Somewhere in Queens"), graduation dress reveals some very disturbing, if illuminating, maternal traits.
Elizabeth also grabs any opportunity to be alone with Joe, noting that they are both thirty-six, coincidentally the same age Gracie was when Joe was thirteen. She flirts with him openly at his work and is wildly inappropriate when asked about performing sex scenes while visiting Mary’s high school drama class (she’ll also off-handedly point at Mary when uttering the word ‘scandalous’). Elizabeth appears to need to seduce everyone to bolster her own self esteem.
And while Gracie shares her makeup routine with Elizabeth, both women looking into the mirror and ending up looking more alike than one would think possible, Joe hunts through old love letters, gifting one from Gracie to Elizabeth who promptly takes advantage of the other woman’s husband. Joe, who has also been texting a woman who shares his hobby of raising monarch butterflies (symbolism alert!), will try to initiate a frank discussion about their relationship with Gracie, suggesting he may have been too young, but she shuts it all down in panicked denial.
The three leads are phenomenal, Portman’s husky come-ons amusing in their brazenness and revelatory in their application, her direct camera reading of Gracie’s love letter the film’s climactic assumption of character. Moore vacillates between controlling motherhood and feminine vulnerability, both with Joe, adopting a childish lisp when playing damsel in distress. This is Melton’s breakout, the actor’s hesitant, halting portrayal of Joe changing around his college-bound children where he grows in confidence, an introduction to weed with Mary’s twin Charlie (Gabriel Chung) his own coming-of-age, the man-boy leaving the boy behind by film’s end.
Haynes has always been at his best with his ‘women’s pictures,’ and he’s created a film of enormous complexity here, both in subject and in tone. Switching things up yet again with cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt ("Showing Up"), the film has a gauzy quality, keeping these characters out of sharp focus. He wraps on an ironic note, a peek at Elizabeth’s film that looks more like a portrait of its portrayer than the woman presumably portrayed.
Robin's Review: B+
Netflix releases "May December" in select theaters on 11/17/23. It begins streaming on 12/1/23.