Within the opening minutes of May December, small-town mother Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore) is throwing a community BBQ with all the social niceties we come to see over the future 113 minutes she shrewdly projects. In hoping she has enough food to feed the masses, she opens the refrigerator and questions if she has enough hot dogs. The dramatic soap opera-esque score cue that immediately follows this indicates that director Todd Haynes (Velvet Goldmine, Far From Heaven) and writer Samy Birch are aware of the film’s melodramatic, light-camp potential, and thus layer with such subtle-free ingredients throughout; given some of the delicate subject matter though, they toe the line successfully in never making fun of their material.
That delicate subject matter centres around Gracie’s past, where, in her mid-30s, already married and with a family of her own, she started an affair with a 13-year-old. Jailed for statutory rape, some 20-years-on she and her n0w-adult “victim”, Joe (Charles Melton), are married with their own family and on the cusp of becoming empty nesters with their twins, Charlie and Mary (Gabriel Chung and Elizabeth Yu, respectively), graduating high school and bound for college.
As much as there is a happy family temperament to Gracie and Joe’s union, there are innate subtleties throughout that suggest anxiety, tension and resentment bubble beneath the surface, and the arrival of Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman) starts to bring such emotions to boil. Elizabeth, a famous television actress, is hoping her big break is on the horizon with her casting as Gracie in a film about her scandalous life, and in a bid to learn more about her character, Elizabeth inserts herself into Gracie’s everyday movements.
With the aforementioned subject matter being potentially tricky to navigate, it’s to Haynes’ credit that he manages to earn such empathy for the situation at hand. Female sex offenders are not a collective often explored in cinema, and though Birch never asks us to forgive Gracie’s actions, the particular way Moore embodies her allows an almost-understanding; comments about her own mother, her former marriage, and the way she describes Joe in their tryst speaks deeply to the mental capacity of her own reality. It’s excessive and quite sad.
In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, the quiet ferocity between Moore and Portman could be deemed as disrespectful to the subject, or could play too understated, but there’s an electricity here that complements the melodrama Haynes is projecting. But opposing that, and making sure that what’s unfolding is never in the name of bad taste, is Joe’s journey, and, by extension, the beautiful delicacy of Melton’s performance. Moore and Portman are having a gay old time chewing the scenery, but Melton brings a much needed softness to proceedings, bringing to mind a wounded James Dean as we see Joe for the repressed man-child he is. An abused child who remains an abused adult in a multitude of ways, his turmoil gradually seeps out over time, and Melton – who I’d be shocked isn’t a serious player in the Supporting Actor race come award season – delivers with such stirring emotion, quietly grounding the film whenever Moore and Portman need to take a break from over-indulging.
Equally devastating as it is darkly funny, May December enjoys existing in a space of discomfort for its intended audience. Once you understand the melodramatic flourishes are intentional, Haynes’ soap opera is a treat to behold as it finds its balance between scintillating and solemnity. It’s in on the joke without ever making light of its accusatorial core, with Moore, Portman and a beguiling Melton covering its bases.
FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
May December screened as part of this year’s Brisbane International Film Festival, running between October 26th and November 5th, 2023. The film is scheduled for release in Australian theatres on February 1st, 2024. It will receive a limited theatrical engagement in the United States from November 17th, 2023, before streaming on Netflix (US) on December 1st.