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Raw and organic performances from Julianne Moore & Natalie Portman elevate May December
Todd Haynes, the acclaimed filmmaker, has collaborated with Samy Buch, a first-time screenwriter, to create their latest feature film, May December. The film takes a “ripped from the headlines” approach, with story elements resembling Mary Kay Letourneau’s. The film’s title deviates from the slang term “May-December relationship,” which refers to a romantic relationship between an older and younger partner.
At the film’s beginning, we see Gracie (Julianne Moore) and Joe (Charles Melton), who are married, getting ready for a cookout. We soon discover that a television actress, Elizabeth (Natalie Portman), has been cast to play Gracie in a movie based on her and Joe’s unlikely relationship. The film then takes us back twenty years, when Gracie’s life took a tumultuous turn. She ended her marriage and pursued a romantic relationship with Joe, her 13-year-old coworker.
It’s now 2015, and Gracie and Joe’s relationship has stabilized. They’ve been together long enough that their youngest children are preparing to graduate high school. While they still receive unpleasant packages now and then at their mansion in seaside Savannah, reminding them of the public’s disapproval of their romance, such occurrences have become less frequent over time. Although their once-scandalous relationship has settled into suburban normalcy on the surface, who knows what goes on behind closed doors?
Watching the film May December can be challenging, but that’s the intention of those behind the scenes. The performances by Portman Moore and Melton are exceptional. Portman’s portrayal of Elizabeth initially comes across as caring and dedicated to reporting the story accurately. However, as the plot unfolds, we see Elizabeth abandon her ethics and morals to achieve her goals. She consistently exhibits narcissistic behavior, whether she’s inappropriately answering questions as a guest speaker for high school students or pushing the limits of Method acting to extreme levels.
On the other hand, Moore’s character made a life-altering decision when she met Joe: she ended her previous marriage for a young boy still in middle school. Without considering the potential consequences, she chose to redefine her concept of family. Gracie believes that by filling her home with individuals, love, sentimental objects, and trivial recipes for cakes and pastries that her neighbors order out of sympathy, she can fill the emptiness caused by an imbalanced relationship. Moore goes to dark places in the film with just her eyes and truly gives the audience a detestable character.
In the trio of leads, the most surprising performance is delivered by Charles Melton. Usually cast as an arrogant alpha male, Melton gives a career-best portrayal of Joe, a man who had his childhood taken away from him, forcing him to mature too quickly. He must be responsible for caring for Gracie and her fragile emotions while dealing with his problems in the background. Joe plays multiple roles as a husband, father, and friend, all at the same time. However, the pain from his lost childhood still haunts Joe, and Melton portrays this inner turmoil with raw emotion. In the story’s third act, he shares two significant moments with both actresses that might capture the attention of award committees.
Like most films in the director’s filmography, May December is unlikely to be revisited. Despite this, the thought-provoking narrative and ensuing discussions make the film a worthwhile watch.
Final Grade: B+
May December is in limited theaters now and available to stream on Netflix on December 1st.
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