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‘May December’ is an uneasy, moral tugging, acting tour-de-force

Director Todd Haynes brings the talented ensemble of Natalie Portman, Julianne Moore, and Charles Melton together to stretch at your sense of right and wrong.

Francois Duhamel / courtesy of Netflix

Todd Haynes’ May December pits your emotions against each other, basking in situations that walk a fine line to where morality should land. At certain moments, the film can’t help but invoke laughter – especially when composer Marcelo Zarvos imparts his dramatic piano keys likened to a campy, melodrama. Then, when you think that you can enjoy yourself, the film acts like a Venus fly trap closing in on you – making you second guess why someone can want all this complication in the first place.

The profoundly uncomfortable moments exist where the line between fiction and reality almost taunts one another and sometimes calls for the audience to choose a side. Tucked away in a small town within Savannah, Georgia, Gracie (Julianne Moore) lives with her husband, Joe (Charles Melton). They’ve been together for a while, along with one major caveat. Married with two children at the time, the relationship between Gracie and Joe began when she was in her mid-30s and he was just 13 years old. What started as a build of unconscionable infatuation in a pet shop has grown into a household with three children.

Although shame has followed this union, in some way, both Gracie and Joe feel encapsulated in time by living in this neighborhood. That’s until television star Elizabeth (Natalie Portman) stays with the Yoo family to dig deeper into their story and get Gracie’s mannerisms down – from pronouncing certain words to applying her makeup daily. Their first meeting is kind of awkward. Just imagine if somebody shows up to your house to “get your character down” for a long space of time – let alone a situation you may not want to be publicized in the public eye any further. Elizabeth assures Gracie she wants her to be seen as the Yoo household gets a box of human feces sent to them.

Francois Duhamel / courtesy of Netflix

We’re assured that they were sent all the time, but have slowed down in recent months. It begs to ask the question as to who exactly this movie will benefit. Haynes and writers Samy Burch and Alex Mechanik make it clear that what happened between Gracie and Joe was wrong – there’s no argument there. But they also look to present the people inside this union are flawed from the circumstances they have gone through and to consider those things as well as the crime. With Gracie, she’s a bit overbearing because it’s the only thing inside her world that she can control. She often gets on Joe for how many beers he drinks and if he smells like smoke and sometimes, without knowing, imparts some of the parental trauma she experienced when she was young to her children.

It’s all a front because, in the quiet moments, it’s clear that she’s coming apart from the inside. Gracie bakes goods for local families, but most buy them out of guilt. If anybody cancels, it sends Gracie into a tailspin. Joe has never experienced life outside of a relationship with somebody older than him. He’s often muted, aimless, and looking for someone to connect with outside of his home - whether by chatting with someone he met in an online group or with Elizabeth as she does her research. It’s almost tragic witnessing his anxiety, knowing that the remaining two children at home are about to go off to college. Usually, parents will be thrilled at the thought of having an empty nest. This prospect throws Gracie and Joe into a realm of uncertainty as it seems like the allure (if you want to call it that) of their affair is starting to wear off.

The third person in the equation is Elizabeth, whose method acting techniques would even make Jared Leto blush. At first, it begins with her asking questions to people like the pet shop owner, Gracie’s ex-husband Tom (D.W. Moffett), and her oldest son from that marriage. As May December goes on, Elizabeth tries to channel the feelings Gracie felt during her and Joe’s rendevous, and in some scenes, Portman mimics Moore’s mannerisms to a tee. Given how awkward the source material is, you’ll question why Elizabeth allows herself to surrender to this process. But there is no collateral damage when you see things as just a role, not the people behind it.

Is Elizabeth just an opportunist? Haynes plays with this notion, and when you think it’s one way, situations would lead you to believe otherwise. Does Gracie feel some remorse for what she’s done? At least in an outward projection, she says she regrets nothing. But as the film continues, you can tell it’s eating her up inside. As excellent as the performances from both Portland and Moore are, Melton’s portrayal of Joe takes the baton in the film's third act. Joe is now a man who is starting to awaken to everything he missed out on for a feeling of love he may not have been able to understand. Where Gracie is not ready to confront what happened to her in her past, Joe hopes for that day – yet has nobody to connect to.

By the end of May December, you see a marriage where two people might be suspended in a state of limbo while all the cameras are ready to warp the lenses of their story. Things are confusing, sometimes comical, and tragic because sometimes things aren’t as easily defined by typical conventions.