November 16th, 2023
MOVIE: MAY DECEMBER
STARRING: NATALIE PORTMAN, JULIANNE MOORE, CHARLES MELTON
DIRECTED BY: TODD HAYNES
AMovieGuy.com’s RATING: 3 ½ STARS (Out of 4)
A film like Ingmar Bergman’s Persona is not likely to be known by the common moviegoer. What is known, however, is that the process of method acting sits between the process of authentic and insane performance. Director Todd Haynes straddles the lines, focusing on acting, scandal, obsession, and human emotions with his new film May December. By mounting those lines, he creates an original look, with an inspection of fact and fiction, creating a narrative that is similar to exactly what Bergman did with Persona, only doing it in a 2023 way. May December is the fascinating study of two women becoming one.
The lead character is a simple housewife named Gracie Atherton (Julianne Moore). She was a part of a messy scandal in Savannah, Georgia that the tabloids ate up. She had an affair with a seventh grader who worked with her at a pet shop named Joe Yoo (Charles Melton). She served 6 years in prison, became pregnant with twins and the two truly fell in love. Now, star actress Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman) has asked for permission to shadow Gracie, studying her for an upcoming indie film on the story. What starts as a simple process of an actress honing her craft, soon becomes a blurring of the lines, where the commitment becomes an unhealthy obsession.
Instantly, the score by Marcelo Zarvos will come as a shock. Hard-hitting piano keys set the tone with a sound similar to a soap opera intro. This is a point that Haynes is working with, as the screenplay by Samy Burch and Alex Mechanik becomes a methodical exercise on the dramatics of living. The overexaggerated score arrives as a reminder that what we are seeing is as consequential as the tabloid stories our characters were a part of. In between these flares are the gentle moments, the calming existence, and the tranquility of these people. Charles Melton’s character is the middle piece, the man who is closer in age to his children, and yet has a more mature outlook than those around him. The question becomes if Elizabeth’s presence will only dig up pain for him instead of bringing catharsis.
Narratively speaking, I don’t think May December is an easy first watch, with jarring narrative choices, and the devil being in the details. What can be picked up, however, is the slow, methodical process of Elizabeth’s transformation. First, she’s mimicking hand placement in photos. Then she’s using the same kind of speech lisp as Gracie. She soon begins to wedge herself into family affairs, from conversations to dinners, going back to the pet shop, and getting far too close to Joe than she should. As the process continues, we begin to see Elizabeth taking this to unhealthy levels, wondering if it’s even in the name of a movie, or if she truly has become Gracie.
What can’t be understated is that May December is transfixing. Using a background story such as the Mary Kay Letourneau scandal for inspiration is obvious, but also crafting something of its own, both as a study of female sexuality and identity. Portman and Moore are solid, while the rising star performance is from Melton, who conveys his emotions both internally and externally. The minor flaws are that May December don’t go far enough. I felt that when we start seeing Elizabeth’s full transformation, it’s just the start, and there may be an even darker conclusion in the future. Maybe Haynes feels we’ve seen enough. Maybe we get a sequel. Either way, May December is a chilling portrayal of identity and how we all can lose ourselves in the drama.
MAY DECEMBER IS PLAYING CURRENTLY IN SELECT THEATERS AND ON NETFLIX FRIDAY DECEMBER 1ST, 2023.
3 ½ STARS
Written by: Leo Brady