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Review: May December (2023)

May December (2023)

Directed by: Todd Haynes

Premise: An actress (Natalie Portman) meets with Gracie (Julianne Moore), a woman whose life she plans to dramatize in an upcoming film. Decades ago, Gracie had a sexual relationship with a minor who is now her husband (Charles Melton), turning her into a tabloid celebrity.

What Works: May December is loosely inspired by the real-life case of Mary Kay Letourneau, a female teacher who had a sexual relationship with a twelve-year-old boy, bore his children, and later married him. Letourneau was a popular subject of the tabloid press in the 1990s. May December isn’t specifically about Letourneau but it is very obviously inspired by her life. The story catches up with its characters decades after the scandal. A film dramatization is in the works and the actress playing the sex offender spends time getting to know the real-life woman and her family. May December is a character study and the film’s primary strength is its performances. Natalie Portman plays Elizabeth, a mediocre actress who plunges into her research in a way that is sometimes creepy and ethically dubious. Julianne Moore is cast as Gracie, the former sexual predator who is now a late middle-aged housewife with a bakery business. Gracie has an outwardly friendly appearance but underneath is something dark and volatile. There is an interesting parallel between Elizabeth and Gracie; they both come across naïve but in a way that might be genuine or might be a way of playing dumb to justify their actions and control people. Also impressive is Charles Melton as Joe, the victim turned husband to Gracie. He’s now an adult and a father but it gradually becomes clear that Joe is trapped in his marriage and that he is mentally frozen in adolescence. That quality defines May December. The characters gradually reveal who they are and we observe the dysfunction in Grace’s family.

What Doesn’t: May December suffers from being a bit too Hollywood. That is evident in the look of the film and the people in it. Everything is very clean and tidy and the actors look like they just stepped out of the makeup chair. The locations and especially Gracie and Joe’s home indicate a level of wealth that is out of step with these people’s lives. The film goes out of its way to emphasize that neither of them has a lucrative job and yet they live in a lavish home. The look of May December is disconnected from the messiness of life and given the subject matter and themes of the story the picture would have benefitted from a different approach to its art direction. The music score by Marcelo Zarvos is very ostentatious. The film channels the melodramatic style of soap operas and ripped-from-the-tabloids docudramas especially those that were popular in the 1990s. This is intended to be funny but nothing else in the movie operates in an equivalent way and the music is distracting and out of place.

Disc extras: Available on Netflix.

Bottom Line: May December has a lot in it that is admirable. The film has several good performances and the filmmakers approach the subject matter thoughtfully. It doesn’t entirely come together due to some of the production and music choices.

Episode: #976 (December 10, 2023)