Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore, Seasonally Affective?
Directed by Todd Haynes
Starring Natalie Portman, Julianne Moore, Charles Melton
Released November 17th, 2023
Elizabeth (Natalie Portman) is a well-known actress who travels to Savannah, Georgia to get to know Gracie (Julianne Moore), the woman she will be portraying in her next film. Years earlier, Gracie became infamous nationwide after her affair with a young boy was exposed. Gracie was in her thirties at the time, and the boy, Joe, was in seventh grade. Gracie went to jail, where she gave birth to their first child. In the time since being released, Gracie and Joe have married, had more children, and are still together some twenty years later.
Elizabeth and Gracie start off on good terms, all friendly and pleasant, with Elizabeth remarking that the pair are “practically the same.” Elizabeth has a hard time believing that Gracie doesn’t concern herself with the public’s opinion of her past actions. Gracie maintains that she practices a clean slate lifestyle, living in the here and now. Elizabeth is noticeably surprised when she meets Joe (Charles Melton); he’s not a young kid anymore. In fact, he is the same age as she is. In contrast to Gracie’s big personality, Joe has a lowkey, calm presence. He insists that he, Graice, and their children are happy, that their union is strong. Elizabeth spends days and dinners with the couple, observing things unsaid and feigning casual friendliness in awkward situations.
During her time in Savannah, Elizabeth makes it a point to talk to people in town who know Gracie and Joe, including Gracie’s ex-husband Tom (D. W. Moffett). It’s obvious that Elizabeth considers herself on a higher level than the locals. She’s having a ball studying these disposable Georgie Rubes, playing with them, picking them apart, using them like a scientist would research animals. Some are charmed by her, the beautiful Hollywood star come to their small town. Others make it known they are resentful of her presence, sure that the film she is making will be nothing more than sensationalism. As the days pass, Gracie and Joe become increasingly concerned with how they will be portrayed in the movie. In conversation between themselves, they refer to Elizabeth dismissively as “the actress.”
Samy Burch’s assured screenplay allows the actors plenty of space to explore their characters. Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore are two of the best actresses working today and seeing them play off of each other is as engaging as you’d expect it to be. It’s a showy role for Moore, as Gracie comes across as more mentally unstable than sympathetic. It’s a delicious role for Portman, as she is revealed to be the craven manipulator that some suspect Gracie to be. Charles Melton is just alright as Joe, the quietly defeated young victim of sexual abuse. Melton’s performance is straightforward, but he’s overshadowed by the two powerhouse actresses around him. Perhaps that was the point in his casting. This imbalance certainly works in favor of the film. The remarkable supporting cast, featuring Lawrence Arancio, Piper Curda, Elizabeth Yu, Gabriel Chung, and Cory Michael Smith, all offer memorable performances. You can feel the decades of pain and confusion that’s been endured by everyone in Gracie and Joe’s orbit.
Joe raises monarch butterflies, a heavy-handed symbol of maturation and change that allows for many shots of caterpillars and butterflies throughout the film. Michael Legrand’s score is purposefully melodramatic, featuring heavy piano notes that convey a slightly campy tone, adding to a feel that isn’t unlike a sleazy made-for-cable movie. I mean that as a compliment. Director Todd Haynes presents a complicated, fascinating character study, one that isn’t afraid to lean into dark humor while exposing how delusional and selfish humans can be. It’s one of the best films of the year, and the best by Haynes since 1998’s Velvet Goldmine.
Though the similarities are apparent, May December is not based on the life of Mary Kay Letourneau. The film is concerned with Gracie and Joe’s difficulty in living as real, complete human beings after being reduced in the public consciousness to scandalous pariahs. Gracie doesn’t own up to having done anything wrong, asserting that she and Joe were, and are still, in love. Joe’s thoughts on the relationship, and their past, are perhaps murkier. He loves the children he’s had with Gracie. He probably loves Gracie. But it’s clear that he’s living in a state of arrested development, one that he’s not sure how to break free from.
May December not only examines how our visions of ourselves are different from how others perceive us, it’s also about how we wantonly consume the real tragedies of others as simple, disposable entertainment. From the crying jags of the glamourous on reality television to murderous episodes of Dateline, the real pain of humans is offered up for us to feast on in-between advertisements for household cleaning products. At one point when they’re alone, Elizabeth is speaking to Joe about his situation, and says something to the effect of “…stories like these,” angering Joe, who points out that this is his actual life she’s reducing to the plot of a movie.
During the film I found myself interested in seeing the fictional movie that Elizabeth is preparing for. For all of the turmoil she stirs up, was it “worth it?” Is the film she’s making anything more than the tabloid trash that’s already been mined from Gracie and Joe’s story? At the conclusion of May December, we see a scene of the film in question being shot. Elizabeth wants to do yet another take, telling the director she’s close to finding something “true.” I’m not so sure.