‘May December’ movie review: Julianne Moore, Natalie Portman burn bright in this unsettling watch

Todd Haynes’ study of abuse, relationships, guilt, shame and the toxic nature of celebrity is equal parts compelling and creepy

March 02, 2024 02:26 pm | Updated 02:26 pm IST

Natalie Portman, Julianne Moore in ‘May December’

Natalie Portman, Julianne Moore in ‘May December’

May December is a difficult watch. The skittering tone contributes to the unease. Is it a campy comedy or a study of guilt and shame, of toxic tabloid celebrity? Based on the notorious Mary Kay Letourneau case where the 34 year-old-teacher initiated a sexual relationship with her 12-year-old student, May December looks at the radioactive fallout on the lives of the principal and peripheral players in the horrific tragedy.

In 2015, a method actor, Elizabeth (Natalie Portman), comes to Savannah, Georgia, to meet Gracie (Julianne Moore) and her husband, Joe (Charles Melton), as part of research for her new project. Gracie and Joe, who were at the centre of a tabloid storm in the 1990s when they were caught having sex in the store room of a pet shop where they worked, are the subjects of a film Elizabeth is working on.

The scandal was because Gracie was 36 while Joe was 13. Gracie was sent to jail where she delivered a daughter by Joe. When Elizabeth visits them, Gracie and Joe have been married for quite some time and are getting ready for their twins’, Mary (Elizabeth Yu) and Charlie (Gabriel Chung), graduation. Their elder daughter, Honor (Piper Curda), is already in college.

It promises to be an awkward time as Gracie’s other family — first husband Tom (D. W. Moffett) and her children with him including Georgie (Cory Michael Smith), who was Joe’s classmate at school — will also be there. As part of her research, Elizabeth meets Tom, Georgie and Gracie’s lawyer, Morris (Lawrence Arancio).

May December (English)
Director: Todd Haynes
Starring: Natalie Portman, Julianne Moore, Charles Melton
Run-time: 117 minutes 
Storyline: An actor visits the home of a couple who made tabloid headlines as part of her research

Todd Haynes uses the imagery of mirrors and reflections to explore our reactions to seeing and perception. When Elizabeth and Gracie meet for the first time, their first words to each other set the tone for the rest of the film. Gracie says, “We are basically the same size.” Elizabeth replies with, “We’re basically the same.”

As the movie progresses, Elizabeth begins to mimic Gracie’s speech patterns, her way of dressing and her make-up. The scene where both are looking into the mirror as Gracie shows Elizabeth her way of applying makeup and choice of product is eerily cannibalistic. There is no easy resolution or absolution, which also contributes to the disquiet the film generates.

A still from ‘May December’

A still from ‘May December’

The writing is so sharp that it cuts to the bone — the letter Gracie writes to Joe is a masterclass in denial. While we have come to expect incandescent acting from both Moore (who is brittle, blithe and alarming as Gracie) and Portman (a sly, slick and unsure Elizabeth), it is Melton as Joe who is a revelation. Reggie Mantle from Riverdale has transformed himself into this hulking boy-man skulking around the corners of life like a ghost of past sins and recriminations.

Watch May December for the acting, the acute writing (the Oscar nom for Best Original Screenplay is well-deserved) and the questions it poses, which uncomfortable though they are, need to be asked.   

May December Part 2 is currently running in theatres

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