May December (2023, dir. Todd Haynes)

by | Nov 21, 2023

Certificate: 15

Running Time: 117 mins

UK Distributor: Sky Cinema

UK Release Date: 17 November 2023

WHO’S IN MAY DECEMBER?

Natalie Portman, Julianne Moore, Charles Melton, D.W. Moffett, Piper Curda, Elizabeth Yu, Gabriel Chung, Cory Michael Smith, Lawrence Arancio

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Todd Haynes (director), Samy Burch (writer), Jessica Elbaum, Will Ferrell, Grant S. Johnson, Pamela Koffler, Tyler W. Konney, Sophie Mas, Natalie Portman and Christine Vachon (producers), Marcelo Zarvos (composer), Christopher Blauvelt (cinematographer), Affonso Gonçalves (editor)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

 An actor (Portman) visits the home of a woman (Moore) who decades prior caused a scandal…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON MAY DECEMBER?

If you’re wondering why it’s called May December when it appears to take place neither in May nor in December, the film takes it title from the phrase that describes a significant age gap between couples. That is all too true with the central relationship in director Todd Haynes’ peculiar dark comedy, which explores the emotional fallout of a union whose very existence is enough to make some people sick to their stomach, as well as the manipulative tendencies of those wishing to exploit their genuine happiness for personal gain.

The results are certainly amusing, and at times smartly conveyed, but I’d be lying if I said that it was enough to completely engross me in the rather muted storyline which, for all its promise of delivering a unique brand of campiness, left me slightly underwhelmed.

We quickly learn of a major scandal from twenty years prior, involving schoolteacher Gracie Atherton (Julianne Moore) and her affair with Joe Yoo (Charles Melton), one of her young students, and whose child she gave birth to whilst in prison after their affair was discovered. Years later, the couple are happily married, have had two more kids who are now about to graduate high school, and live in a small community that has largely accepted them, despite the controversy surrounding them which they still get hate mail for.

Much of the film has to do with Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman), an actor who has been cast in a dramatized retelling of the scandal, visiting the couple at their idyllic family house, where she intends to shadow Gracie and research her mannerisms and backstory, in order to get the portrayal right. In doing so, however, she ends up opening a can of emotional worms as the couple begin to face the reality of their blissful relationship, as a result of Elizabeth digging a bit too deep into their questionable history.

Loosely inspired by the real-life case of Mary Kay Letourneau, who was similarly prosecuted for an affair with a minor, Haynes’ film is an odd viewing experience, because it deals with rather alarming subject matter in a style not too far removed from some of the filmmaker’s more melodramatic and campier work. The film is structured and at times even shot like it’s a Lifetime original movie, complete with overblown musical stingers and sharp zoom-ins accompanying minor inconveniences, such as the fact that the couple have run out of hotdogs for their barbecue. This is clearly done for parodic reasons as Haynes, no stranger to over-the-top and borderline surreal melodrama with films like Safe and I’m Not There under his belt, emphasises the heightened nature of writer Samy Burch’s narrative, which is often played straight in those sensationalised dramas on that particular channel, but here is done with a somewhat self-aware attitude.

The intent is clear, as Haynes seeks to subtly lampoon the conventions of the sensationalist feature that someone like Portman’s Elizabeth is starring in, while also playing up the power struggle between two equally catty women over the ownership (of sorts) of this young and impressionable man. However, the execution is vague, as it’s neither campy nor sharply funny enough for such intent to become immediately obvious, which initially makes it hard to follow what exactly it’s trying to do. Furthermore, as impressive as Portman and Moore’s performances are – the latter even putting on a lisp that she somehow manages to pull off with dignity – the actors aren’t given as much free reign to have fun with their larger-than-life roles, which their director strangely chooses to tone down within a style that calls for something more overdone.

I suppose, though, when talking about such things as paedophilia and statutory rape, perhaps a more careful approach is required. It is when May December gets into these heavy themes that the film is most effective, especially as the unnerving facts of this case become more and more apparent, as well as the psychological effect it has had on the young victim. Charles Melton puts in a deeply wounded turn as Joe, who is barely old enough to have a mid-life crisis yet is on the verge of experiencing empty nest syndrome as his teenage kids are on their way to college, and as he is forced to look back upon the circumstances that have led him to this point in time, you can see how much more it’s affected him than he’d ever care to admit.

Then, there’s the matter of someone like Elizabeth twisting his own emotions, not unlike Gracie did when they first hooked up illegally, to selfishly benefit her upcoming performance. The film has fun picking apart the character’s pretensions as she conveys her thoughts on playing such a role like they’ve been carefully rehearsed by her PR team, while her methods of immersing herself into the heart of the drama are amusingly predatory in their own way. There is some interesting commentary about the nature of performance in this film, and again Portman is great at conveying just how obsessive someone like her character can be when it comes to encompassing all the facts for the sake of her art.

It’s a shame that the rest of the film isn’t quite as lucrative, or even as enjoyably over-the-top as its style might suggest, because there’s enough about May December to respect, but not necessarily love either.

SO, TO SUM UP…

May December is an amusing and darkly comedic depiction of alarming subject matter with a heightened style by director Todd Haynes, but despite some interesting commentary and some strong performances, it lacks the right amount of camp for it to be a truly entertaining experience.

Three out of five stars

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