Seeking out the

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May December

Directed by Todd Haynes
Produced by Will Ferrell, Natalie Portman, Christine Vachon, Pamela Koffler, Jessica Elbaum, Grant S. Johnson, Tyler W. Konney, and Sophie Mas
Screenplay by Samy Burch Story by Samy Burch and Alex Mechanik
With: Natalie Portman, Julianne Moore, Charles Melton, Cory Michael Smith, D. W. Moffett, Piper Curda, Elizabeth Yu, Gabriel Chung, and Lawrence Arancio
Cinematography: Christopher Blauvelt
Editing: Affonso Gonçalves
Music: Marcelo Zarvos
Runtime: 117 min
Release Date: 01 December 2023
Aspect Ratio: 1.85 : 1
Color: Color

Director Todd Haynes and star Julianne Moore reunite for their fifth collaboration, which is well worthy of inclusion with their best work together, Safe and Far from Heaven. Moore plays Gracie Atherton-Yoo, a formally notorious Savannah mother whose romance with her young husband (Charles Melton) was once at the center of a nationwide tabloid scandal. Natalie Portman plays Elizabeth Berry, a mid-level actress set to play Gracie in a made-for-TV-movie about that scandal. The film unfolds over several days of Elizabeth observing Gracie at a critical point in her family's life. Though set in 2015, the movie harkens back to the 1990s era in which multiple sex scandals became TV movies before they'd even finished playing out in the tabloids—think Mary Kay Letourneau, Joey Buttafuoco and Amy Fisher, Bill and Monica, Charles and Di, Roseanne and Tom, Woody and Mia, Pamala and Tommy Lee, etc.

The screenplay by Samy Burch, with story credit by Burch and her husband Alex Mechanik, was for several years one of the hottest screenplays on the Blacklist—the renowned annual survey of Hollywood's most-admired unproduced screenplays. Burch, a former casting director, starts her writing process by creating character bios of the people who might populate a story connected to her central idea and letting the script grow around them. So it's not surprising that, while the movie has a lot to say about the issue that caused Gracie's scandal, it is far more about who Gracie is, how she has contextualized the events of more than twenty years ago, and how these events have shaped the lives of her young family and disrupted the lives of her previous family. Burch came of age during the tabloid '90s, and the script has plenty to say about how our culture consumes the media and how we assume to know everything about people and events based on the little bits we glean from television and now from social media. But none of this sharp commentary is foregrounded in this movie. This is a character piece that pulls the viewer in slowly as we observe behavior, not exposition.

Haynes is an ideal director for this material because most of his movies are unusual takes on character-based "issue movies." His interest in how images and external narratives affect our internal perceptions of ourselves and his distinct sense of humor keep this film subtly focused on what's happening behind the frame. That's even true when the frame is this movie's central image, a big-old close-up of the two lead actresses staring at each other in a mirror. It's a shot out of some Bizzaro World where Ingmar Bergman directed Desperate Housewives. Haynes is fascinated by what lurks behind surfaces. So a story that follows an actress obsessed with surface details attempting to understand "the truth" about a couple who have each suppressed so much for so long behind facades they've created for themselves is ideal material. Haynes leans into the melodramatic elements of this narrative in unexpected and hilarious ways. Principal among these flourishes is how he depicts the on-the-nose metaphor of Gracie's young husband's hobby and the heavyhanded, cheesy music by Marcelo Zarvos (which is based on an existing score for a film I just happened to watch the month before I saw May December—Joseph Losey's 1971 British period drama The Go-Between).

All the performances in May December are first-rate. Moore and Melton infer and embody all the complexities of a 20+ year relationship that started under traumatic conditions and the way that relationship has been contextualized and controlled. Each of the young actors who play Gracie's children creates a fully realized character in very little screen time. But the greatest performance comes from Portman, who may have found her ideal role as this actress attempting to absorb, psychoanalyze, and "get to the heart" of the woman she's about to portray. Portman never plays Elizabeth as dumb or even shallow. We can see Elizabeth's limitations as both an actor and a person, yet they never come across as anything but fully human. The way Portman inhabits this "mediocre actress" is a work of great acting, not of easy type-casting.

I've met several actors who've worked at Elizabeth's level of fame for their entire careers. Most are acclaimed artists with incredible stage credits who are either bitter that they are mostly known for their work in bad TV movies, soaps, and Law and Order episodes, or they have a great sense of humor about that fact. But then there are the ones like Elizabeth who have an inscrutable quality. You can't tell if there's "no there there" or if there's some complex mental process they're constantly engaged in, where the line between absorbing other people's behaviors, giving a performance, and existing in real life is indistinguishable.

Portman's incredible turn captures this specific type of individual and enhances our fascination with Gracie, whom Moore plays practically as unreadable as Portman plays Elizabeth. These two very different characters constantly try to understand who the other one is but never really get there. As an audience, we don't fully arrive at a full summation either, but we get closer because we're privy to scenes of each character in private. Haynes and Burch do a marvelous job of showing us just enough that we think we have a handle on who all three of these main characters are and then revealing just enough more that we begin to question the conclusions we've drawn. It's both thrilling and fun to experience how May December tucks this fascinating triple-character study into what, on the surface, seems like a simple, almost trashy melodrama.

Twitter Capsule:

Todd Haynes and Samy Burch create a fascinating triple-character study tucked into what, on the surface, seems like a simple, almost trashy melodrama about a mid-level actress researching a couple once at the center of a tabloid scandal.