"May December" showcases Todd Haynes' tonal mastery and three skillfully calibrated performances

May December (2023)

By studying a Mary Kay Letourneau-type scandal through the prism of a method actor’s process, filmmaker Todd Haynes ("Carol") enters morally complex and thematically daring territory with “May December.” In writer Samy Burch’s script, a scandalous relationship subsequent marriage, which became tabloid fodder, is the basis for an upcoming indie film project, and a hungry actress needs to do the work. Skirting the line between an emotionally true drama and a big, lurid melodrama, Haynes’ film is psychologically insightful and yet still very entertaining with understated, skillfully calibrated performances.

In this film’s reality, Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore) was married with children and 36 years old when she had an affair with 13-year-old seventh-grader Joe (played as an adult by Charles Melton). After being convicted of rape and serving her sentence, Gracie and Joe now have a happy life with three teenage children in Savannah, Georgia (with the exception of hate mail in the form of human shit in a box). Things get shaken up when TV actress Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman) arrives to the couple’s barbecue, ready to study and get to know the real person behind the role she’ll be playing. It’s a planned arrangement, of course, but Gracie and Joe are busy gearing up for their twin son and daughter’s high school graduation and empty nest syndrome. As Elizabeth hangs around the family and meets up to chat with as many people who know Gracie, she hopes to give the most honest portrayal and maybe even understand Gracie.

There’s a trickiness to all three lead performances, and none of them strike a false note. Julianne Moore, speaking with a slight lisp, is obviously a master of her craft (and now making this her sixth collaboration with Haynes). In playing Gracie, she alternates between a motherly homemaker and a needy girl. Like Elizabeth says in taking on any role (“I wanted to find a character that’s difficult to, on the surface, understand”), Gracie is very hard to pin down. Natalie Portman is every bit of Moore’s equal as Elizabeth, exquisite in how she listens and takes in everything there is to know about Gracie (sometimes with a notepad in hand). Read the full review at GuyAtTheMovies.com

Grade: B +

Netflix released "May December" (117 min.) in select theaters on November 17, 2023, followed by a streaming release on December 1, 2023.