Film Review: May December | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Tuesday, June 25th, 2024  

May December

Studio: Netflix
Director: Todd Haynes

Oct 04, 2023 Web Exclusive
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Todd Haynes’ May December is an entertaining, darkly funny look at how people exploit one another and the complex secrets we hold.

The film follows Elizabeth (Natalie Portman), an actress who visits married couple Gracie (Julianne Moore) and Joe (Charles Melton) at their idyllic Georgia house. Twenty years earlier, the 36-year-old Gracie and 13-year-old Joe were caught having an affair. Gracie was arrested, while pregnant with Joe’s baby. Major tabloids devoured the story. In the years following the outing of their relationship, Gracie and Joe had since married, having three kids–one of whom is in college and two of whom are about to graduate high school.

Elizabeth is playing Gracie in an upcoming film, and she wants to understand the nuances of Gracie’s and Joe’s relationship and what drove Gracie to have an affair in the 1990s. At first, her visit proceeds calmly. There’s tension in the air, but Gracie and Joe seem happy and more than willing to describe their relationship. But, as Elizabeth gets more involved in Gracie’s and Joe’s lives, discovering some of their odd tendencies and hidden secrets, tensions begin to broil as the three lose track of one another and themselves.

Despite May December’s intense subject matter, Haynes’ film is surprisingly funny. The film is filled to the brim with the darkest humor imaginable, with throwaway one-liners or deadpan monologues that focus not on the uncomfortableness of Gracie’s and Joe’s relationship, but on how Elizabeth navigates their situation. From the film’s opening, when Gracie and Elizabeth first interact at a family barbecue, it’s clear they don’t like one another and probably never will. They’re only using each other for their personal gain. The rest of the film operates with this idea at its forefront, using a slithering narrative to keep viewers entertained, intrigued and somewhat horrified to see what will happen next.

As such, while the film is humorous, its heavy subject matter and vividly defined characters constantly create an unsettling feeling that makes May December difficult to sit through. The decision to set the film during the end of Gracie’s and Joe’s kids’ high school experience, culminating in their graduation, is genius. It makes viewers constantly question how the couple made it to this point–what events befell them as their three children grew up, whether their relationship dynamic has always been like this and how they’ve fared with the press/public. While the story stays in the present, with every moment, you can feel the past seeping into the characters’ actions and dialogue as they realize that their lives are darker than they thought. But maybe they knew that all along. With Haynes’ smart direction and writer Samy Burch’s layered script, either is possible.

The film also contains some of the year’s best performances. Portman and Moore are fantastic, as usual. Their faux-friendly interactions with one another perfectly conceptualize the juxtaposition of their characters’ showy affection and deep judgment. Melton’s deep, layered performance is a true (and welcome) surprise. The Riverdale actor expertly embodies Joe’s complex character, tying the film together and making its impact resonant long after the credits roll.

Author rating: 7.5/10

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