In legendary director Todd Haynes May December, Julianne Moore and Charles Melton are very much in love. Or at least that’s what they want the outside world to think. When we first meet their characters, they are preparing for a barbecue. Moore’s Gracie is lamenting about the possibility of running out of hot dogs even though Joe has bought more than enough.
Gracie’s anxiety stems from the arrival of Elizabeth Berry, a famous actress who is stuck on a broadcast procedural. She thinks her first big serious project could be the film adaptation of Gracie and Joe’s story. Over twenty years before the couple was involved in a tabloid scandal after the two entered an inappropriate relationship the summer before Joe’s eighth-grade year.
Elizabeth is there to observe the couple and their family, their youngest, a set of twins, about to graduate. It becomes clear very early on that Elizabeth is just as twisted and manipulative as Gracie. She flirts with the male students in one of the twin’s drama classes. She makes passes at Joe. It’s apparent that their story is just a rung on her career ladder and it makes you root for this relationship that you know you shouldn’t.
This contradiction is at the heart of Samy Burch’s script. She peppers in realistic dialogue that when delivered with precision by Portman and Moore feels creepily realistic. Some viewers will find similarities between Gracie and Joe’s story with Mary Kay Letourneau scandal that dominated the late ‘90s tabloids. Burch doesn’t borrow directly, instead finding subtle and horrifying ways to create her own messed-up version.
There are no flashbacks in May December but it’s how people recall the past that is disturbing. At one point Gracie reiterates to Elizabeth that Joe seduced her, that he wanted her initially not the other way around. In another scene, she remarks that her husband has been in more relationships than she has been in, overlooking that two kids dating is very different than two adults. Joe talks passively about how his parents didn’t do much after the scandal, allowing their relationship to continue. Burch drops these tiny bombs that blow up later with shocking results.
Moore plays the aging mother with a streak of naivete and narcissism, flipping between the two at the drop of a hat. You don’t know if her character is really that immature and ignorant or if she is a mastermind. This is Moore’s fifth collaboration with director Todd Haynes and they don’t miss a step here.
It’s not easy to stand out among powerhouses like Moore and Portman, but Melton nearly steals the whole film. He gives Joe a childlike quietness that feels heartbreakingly real. Now finally the age Gracie was when the relationship started, you can see his own doubts about his past and future seep in on his face with each conversation he has. You will be yelling at him to leave one minute and wanting to hug him the next.
Haynes’ ability to pull these three performances of his leading actors along with the sinister parts of Burch’s script and then also find these comedic beats is astounding. He and composer Marcelo Zarvos infuse the soundtrack with a reorchestration of Michel Legrand’s music in 1971’s The Go-Between. It gives off soap opera vibes in the most effective way possible.
Overall, Haynes’ direction will have you questioning your own morals and loyalties by the time the final credits roll. May December is a film that doesn’t easily leave you and one that will surely be an Oscar contender come March.
May December comes to theaters on November 17th and Netflix on December 1. Watch the trailer below.