Todd Haynes’s May December starts as a kind of camp satire of the true crime genre but emerges as a wrenching tale.
PLOT: An ambitious actress (Natalie Portman) shadows an infamous former tabloid figure (Julianne Moore) she’s playing in a movie.
REVIEW: May December is loosely based on the Mary Kay Letourneau case. This was one of the biggest tabloid stories of the nineties. Letourneau was a convicted pedophile, being a school teacher who had an affair with her 12-year-old student. Despite initially getting off with a minor prison sentence, she continued her relationship with the boy, eventually becoming pregnant by him. She spent seven years in jail, but, in perhaps the strangest twist of all, when she got released, she married her now adult former victim.
May December isn’t precisely a Mary Kay Letourneau film, but Julianne Moore plays a woman very closely patterned on her. In the movie, her composite character, Gracie, has been out of jail for many years and has settled into a supposedly idyllic life with her former victim-turned-husband, Joe (Charles Melton). In her small town, everyone seems to like Gracie and makes excuses for her past crimes, with even her former husband (who had children with her that she abandoned) having a semi-friendly relationship with her. Of course, the arrival of Natalie Portman’s Elizabeth, a mediocre actress hoping this role will make her a big-time star, shakes everything up.
Directed by the great Todd Haynes (Carol and the underseen Dark Waters), May December wasn’t the film I thought it would be. It begins as a camp melodrama, quickly establishing that Portman’s character is near sociopathic in her willingness to exploit and use the people she’s studying. Initially, Moore’s Gracie comes off as the sympathetic one, with it being explained to us repeatedly how she and Joe have a lovely family and care about each other.
But, about halfway through the film, Haynes does something very interesting. Portman’s Elizabeth has to approve a child actor to play Joe in the movie she’s making, and what you keep noticing is how painfully young all of the kids look. And then you have Portman acting out their predatory seduction in a lurid, movie of the week fashion (which also illustrates how bad of an actress Portman is playing and that the movie she’s making is junk). It’s at this point that the worm starts to turn, and it becomes more apparent to the audience that, despite people making excuses for Gracie, she’s kind of a monster and an unrepentant child molester.
While the movie is sold as a two-hander for Portman and Moore, both of whom are excellent, the film really belongs to Charles Melton, who plays Gracie’s victim-turned-husband. As the movie starts, he seems two-dimensional, being handsome and happy and more than willing to give into his wife’s passive-aggressive demands. But, as the film goes on, we realize how traumatized he is and that he’s stuck in a relationship with a permanently skewed power dynamic.
Melton is superb as the increasingly troubled Joe, who starts to come to pieces after being put under the microscope by Portman’s character, who mercilessly exploits his trauma. It’s one of the year’s strongest performances and shouldn’t be overlooked due to him being less of a name than his co-stars.
However, that doesn’t diminish the excellent work done by Portman and Moore. Both tend to more often play sympathetic roles and sink their teeth into more unseemly parts, with Portman excellent as the venal Elizabeth, who doesn’t seem to have a single scruple. Moore’s role is even more complex, with her using her charm to make you initially like Gracie and then turning on a dime to make you hate her. Moore uses a lisp in an interesting way. At first, it seems charming because – hey – it’s Julianne Moore doing it, and she’s lovely. By the movie’s end, you despise the affected lisp just as much as you hate the character. It’s a big performance but also a brave one, as Moore has no problem playing someone you’re supposed to despise eventually.
All of this makes May December a unique piece of awards-fare for Netflix. Haynes delivered them a movie which is as far from a straightforward true-crime tale as you can get, with him daring to throw in a heavy dose of camp and black comedy. But, when the film starts to get serious, it becomes wrenching and shows what a master he truly is. If you think May December looks like simple awards fare, I’d still give it a shot if it shows up in your Netflix queue. It’s a pretty audaciously made film with a trio of spectacular performances.