There is a moment early in the set-dressing of May December when my jaw swung open like the doors of a well-loved saloon. On paper, it’s nothing out of the ordinary: a caress between a married couple throwing a garden party in the backyard of their sprawling Savannah home. But that perfectly routine display of intimacy was easily one of the most shocking things I saw on-screen this year. And, in the practiced hands of director Todd Haynes, it only gets more uncomfortable, twisted, and campy from there.
Haynes, along with the film’s writers Samy Burch and Alex Mechanik, are by no means trying to conceal the salacious lynchpin about which May December turns. After all, the film’s title outright announces the not-so-secret elephant in the room to those in the know. That said, while I’m sure knowing the sordid shape of things is rewarding, the experience of going in blind is the cinematic equivalent of being deputized as the village gossip. It’s all very: “Did you see that? But isn’t he a bit… you know? Wait… she has another kid from a previous… and he’s…?”
If you’ve somehow stumbled across this review and don’t know what May December is about, scroll down to the bottom of this article (you know, for SEO purposes) and pop over to Netflix. I’d say “thank me later,” but the dawning realization of what Haynes is up to is more dramatically fulfilling than it is pleasant. And with that out of the way, let’s dive in. Hazmat suits are optional but recommended.
May December follows Elizabeth (Natalie Portman), a Hollywood actress who travels to Georgia to research her upcoming role as Gracie (Julianne Moore), a southern housewife whose scandalous statutory rape of a seventh grader captivated the nation twenty years ago. Joe (Charles Melton), now Gracie’s husband and the father of her children, appears perfectly well-adjusted if somewhat isolated and awkward. Like us, Elizabeth suspects that the couple is not nearly as secure and doubt-free as they claim to be. And so, the actress begins to poke around, even arranging an impromptu meeting with Gracie’s adult son from a previous marriage (Cory Michael Smith), who is, nauseatingly, the same age as Joe.
For their part, Gracie and Joe justifiably fear the new film will peel the scab off a barely-healed wound; bringing new, unwanted attention to their family just as their kids leave home for college. But it’s Elizabeth’s job to pry. How else will she evoke an honest and three-dimensional portrait of the flawed, complex woman that is Gracie? It’s going to be uncomfortable, sure. But isn’t that a justifiable sacrifice for a truly great piece of art? And so a horrifying and deeply funny tête-à-tête ensues between Elizabeth, an unstoppable, invasive force, and Gracie, an immovable, willfully naive object.
Portman and Moore (the latter of whom celebrates her fifth collaboration with Haynes), are as captivating and stupendous as you’d expect; barbed, cagey, and armed to the teeth with acrid double meanings and cruel smiles. Both women are terrible people in different directions: one unapologetically and unrepentantly herself and the other dead-set on consuming and regurgitating the sins, mannerisms, and audacity of her subject.
And yet, even alongside Oscar winners firing on all cylinders, Melton gives what is easily the breakout performance of the year. Melton mentally traps Joe in the fulcrum of his trauma. He’s a genuinely loving husband and a caring father. But he doesn’t have a full toolkit to deal with the parts of adult life you only garner from experience. He smokes weed for the first time with his teenage son on the roof. He cares and tends to endangered monarch butterflies, who enjoy the growth and freedom he’ll never get to experience. And he doesn’t know what to do with his hands when he confronts his wife, between sobs, about what she did to him twenty years ago. He was robbed of his innocence and is, simultaneously, trapped in it.
Haynes and company deserve a trophy for the tonal tightrope walk on display here. It’s like Persona filtered through the lens of a Telenovela; identity horror intermingled with dramatic zooms, melodramatic piano, and some of the darkest jokes you’re liable to find this year. At one point, after scanning through the self-tapes of the child actors vying to play Joe in the film, a thoroughly lost-in-the-sauce Elizabeth tells her producer she doesn’t think any of these kids are sexy enough. The jokes in this movie make you want to rip your skin off and jump off a cliff. That’s how you know it’s good.
Without spoiling May December‘s final punchline, I’ll say this much: just when you think the knife twist is over, it hits a bone. May December isn’t going to hold you by the hand and tell you how to feel about these people let alone whether any of this reproachable calamity was worth anything. Haynes puts us in the unenviable position of passing judgment for ourselves. And I judge that Riverdale’s Charles Melton is a force to be reckoned with. Mark my words.