My Thanksgiving break can be summed up in one word: cinematic. I visited the movie theater on three separate occasions, catching “The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes,” “Saltburn” and my melodramatic favorite, “May December.”
“May December,” directed by Todd Haynes, tells the tale of Elizabeth, a TV actress, portrayed by Natalie Portman, who’s secured a role in a biopic about a self-proclaimed star-crossed couple. Elizabeth observes the pair in their natural habitat —a hazy Savannah home on the water filled with children, dogs and shrouded by low-hanging trees. It would be the perfect life if not for the scandal that unfolded two decades earlier.
Haynes paints a world where Gracie, skillfully portrayed by Julianne Moore, and Joe, played by Riverdale alum Charles Melton, are community pariahs, infamous for their past sex scandal. Gracie, at the age of 36, engaged in a sexual relationship with Joe, who was only 13 at the time. Now, Joe is the same age Gracie was when they met. What followed the unsettling affair was a tabloid tale like no other. They were caught, Gracie went to jail, and there she bore Joe’s child. After serving her sentence, they married and had two more kids. It is profoundly disturbing, yet we as spectators are locked in, fascinated by the absurd.
The couple allows Elizabeth, who will be portraying Gracie in an independent film, to shadow their life, on a mission to have their story told in (what they consider) an honest way. In our first glimpse of the couple, they effortlessly handle a box of real, human excrement that is hate-mailed to them. As the film unfolds, we are introduced to Gracie and Joe’s children, as well as her children with ex-husband Tom. Each one appears to be wounded by her past and present actions.
I was hooked from the first heavy piano chord, skillfully borrowed from The Go-Between soundtrack, a film with eerily familiar themes. The movie is so stylistic and strange, with one word that prevails –– camp. Haynes displays a masterful understanding of his craft through dramatic zooms accompanied by the overarching piano tones. The next line is then produced with intense dread: “I don’t think we have enough hot dogs.” It’s perfection. Somehow, they shot this movie in 23 days, without any rehearsal.
Moore delivers another nuanced performance, playing the twisted “older woman” with an emotional sense of humanity. Gracie’s manipulative behavior is evident in Joe’s inability to articulate his feelings, her daughter Mary’s obedience and her son Georgie’s eccentric life as a local Peter Frampton cover singer. Even more disturbing is the fact Georgie, who is Gracie’s son from her previous marriage, is the same age as Joe.
Gracie gets her daughters scales as graduation gifts. She believes her naiveté is a gift. Her lack of self-awareness is stunning. Moore is the perfect person for the role. She is at her best when she is unhinged. And of course, the lisp was the icing on the cake.
Elizabeth should represent us, the spectators, but she goes beyond. Her obsession with hitting the dot on her role directly impacts the family. She is always in control, exerting herself and almost becoming Gracie. At one point while viewing audition tapes, she asks for “sexier 13-year-olds.” It is beyond horrifying how far one will go to be a part of a story. Portman makes you squirm, in the best way.
After I finished watching this film, it lingered in my mind for days. One figure kept appearing: Melton. His performance was layered. He had the ultimate task of playing a kid trapped in the body of a grown man, frozen in place. In a way, his wife still treats him like a teenager although she insists that he was the one that was “in charge.” He smokes weed for the first time with his own son, he finds solace in the comforts of the butterflies he takes care of. His free time is spent on the couch nursing a beer, all while Gracie controls his intake. The realization that dawns across Melton’s face, that he’s missed years of his own life, is heartbreaking and dealt with precision. As the film ends, you want to run into the screen and give Melton a hug.
I watched this film with my mom, who was very familiar with the real-life case that “May December” was loosely based on. For her, the Mary Kay Letourneau saga of the late ‘90s was an addiction. Everyone was glued to the unfolding events, eagerly grabbing each edition of People Magazine to follow the story their own way. As the film recounts, many “lose track of where the line is” in these types of things. Haynes delves into the ways in which spectators immerse themselves in traumatic moments.
“May December” is a harrowing, ‘80s-esque soap opera. Yes, it is funny. Yes, it can be delightfully tense. But, at its core, it is a critique of our culture of making criminals into celebrities. And our obsession with turning everything into a new true crime podcast series or documentary. At the end of the day, this is just what grown-ups do.
“May December” begins streaming on Netflix Dec. 1 and continues its run in select theaters.