Director: Todd Haynes
Writers: Samy Birch, Alex Mechanik
Cast: Julianne Moore, Natalie Portman, Charles Melton, Piper Curda
Producers: Jessica Elbaum, Will Ferrell, Grant S. Johnson, Pamela Koffler, Tyler W. Konney, Sophie Mas, Natalie Portman, Christine Vachon
Music: Marcelo Zarvos
Cinematographer: Christopher Blauvelt
Editor: Affonso Gonçalves
Cert: 15 (TBC)
Running time: 113mins
What’s the story: Gracie (Moore) and husband Joe (Melton) feel the returning pressure of a past scandal when famous actor Elizabeth Berry (Portman) visits for a movie she is making about the event.
What’s the verdict: After the unfocussed Wonderstruck and the solid-if-unremarkable Dark Waters, Todd Haynes is on surer ground with May December. Reunited with frequent collaborator Julianne Moore, he also repeats the dual female lead magic conjured in 2016’s Carol by recruiting Natalie Portman.
Moore is the confident, self-assured Gracie, living a handsome looking life of middle-class bliss in Savannah, Georgia. She and her younger husband Joe (Melton) have one daughter at college, and twins about to go do the same. Into their lives arrives Portman’s poised actor Elizabeth, there to meet Gracie before playing her in a movie about a scandal that occurred during the 1990s.
The age gap between Gracie and Joe is revealed (early on) to have been criminal, and the liaison resulted in the birth of their eldest daughter (a caustic Curda). The nationwide tabloid-fuelled scandal that ensued means unwelcome packages still arrive on the doorstep. As Elizabeth researches Gracie’s life and history, secrets are unearthed, and tensions begin to simmer. As different explanations about past events are thrown about, what is to be believed?
These are questions you’ll be pondering long after the credits have rolled. Refusing to fall into easy judgements, but retaining a moral core, the sunny, colourful May December may be one of the most challenging movies of the year.
Moore should finally bag that elusive Oscar as Gracie, unless the Academy grows jittery about the subject matter. Gracie’s carapace of certainty deflects the barbed comments of the townsfolk, or the more direct attacks from children of her current and previous marriage. Her relationship with Joe blurs lines between spousal and maternal. She’s casually callous, fat-shaming her youngest daughter when graduation dress shopping. But Haynes includes moments of raw vulnerability that add further layers and confuse easy answers.
Portman, who should also see an Oscar nomination coming her way, in some ways acts as audience surrogate. Arriving with smiles and pop-psychology buzzwords, she interviews friends and family and studies Gracie’s mannerisms and lispy speech patterns. But how much can be understood of someone, even when their life is seemingly all out on display? What is the temptation to latch onto pat answers to fill psychological gaps? And Elizabeth is not above exploiting tensions to help her find character, or using the power of her fame.
Melton too excels in a role that resists simple interpretation. Evidence of arrested development can be seen in his wary, nervous behaviour, and next to his kids he doesn’t always seem to be the adult in the room. But then a well-played scene between him and Portman’s Elizabeth complicates simple readings.
Although fictional, May December acts as a salutatory lesson in the challenges of turning messy real life into easily digestible three acts stories. Or about the responsibility of making choices that will define how people’s lives will be remembered (for more information, see the troubling history of The Blind Side).
Haynes and co. mine the situation for boldly comic moments of social embarrassment. Particularly as Gracie returned to her hometown after serving at the state’s pleasure, and wasn’t welcomed by all friends and family. Those wanting big emotional crescendos and pat resolutions will be disappointed (and won’t have been watching the film properly). A couple of deliberately melodramatic music stings early on (plus a briefly seen, hilariously tacky made-for-TV version of the scandal) shows what kind of film this isn’t.
What May December is is a thrill for audiences craving grown-up cinema. Expect it to appear on many a Top 10 list by year’s end.