Todd Haynes’ May December could be a reenactment of any number of real-world tabloid scandals in which an older woman slept with a young teenage boy, a crime no less illegal or morally reprehensible than if the genders were reversed – but one slightly less frowned on by a society well versed in double standards. There was even more than one of these famous incidents where the woman gave birth to the teenager’s child. Understandably, many of these have also been made into movies, even one that serves as a jumping off point within the fictitious world Haynes gives us here.
What May December does that these other films haven’t is give us a look at where these characters find themselves 20 years later – she having served her jail time, he now in his mid-30s, both having raised children who are now young adults. Life has to go on, but what scars has it left on everyone who was involved with or directly resulted from that affair, beyond the boxes of poop left on their doorstep at regular intervals?
Haynes provides us this very humanistic look at this variety of victims, which may even extend to the perpetrator herself in some small way. Such is the breadth of the director’s generosity toward human beings and their foibles. However, no one would ever describe a Todd Haynes’ film as being weighted down by earnestness. His work always features a wicked glint in his eye, and the purposefully melodramatic score (by Marcelo Zarvos) just highlights how this is all larger than life, but also within the range of life’s experiences.
Gracie (Juliane Moore) worked in a pet store in Savannah, Georgia in the early 1990s, when she took on Joe (Charles Melton as an adult) as summertime help. Joe was 13, but this didn’t stop the married Gracie, whose own children were Joe’s age, from starting an affair with him. She claims Joe was actually the seductor, but a child cannot be held accountable for such impulses, even if true. Gracie had the instinct to avoid discovery, carrying out the trysts in the pet store stock room, but this was ultimately crippled by the fact that she had fallen in love, and he too. She had his first baby in prison, and twins later on, once she’d finished her time and he’d turned 18.
Improbably, they stayed in Savannah and raised apparently normal children, their daughter now out in the world and their twins about to graduate high school. It’s at this point that the actress Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman) arrives in Savannah to meet with and learn about the family. She’s playing Gracie in a more serious version of the story than had been commissioned for a tawdry TV movie, and she’s the sort of actress who needs to study her subject rigorously to excavate the maximum truth from her portrayal. As she meets with others around town – such as Gracie’s ex, and her grown children from her first marriage – Elizabeth stirs up all the old shit, and begins undertaking some version of Gracie’s role in their lives.
On the surface, May December looks like it could be one of the many iterations we’ve seen of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, where two women sharing the same space steadily come to resemble one another until they are indistinguishable. While Persona might be an influential text for Haynes, that’s putting too fine a point on Haynes’ purpose in making this film. Yes, there’s interesting material about what the actress picks up from her muse during the course of a week pregnant with meaning for all involved. But this is more a portrait of this family, maybe specifically the husband Joe, then it is a gimmicky take on merging personalities.
Despite truly stellar work from Moore and Portman – Moore even effectively incorporates a lisp into her performance – Melton may have the most complicated role here. In a very real way, even at age 36, he is stunted as the 13-year-old who was deflowered by Gracie all those years back. (Actually, they say Gracie was the third female he slept with, which adds context to the events of that time.)
Initially, the character’s apparent simplicity is indistinguishable from the performance of a novice actor, though Melton has actually been on the scene for ten years and had a starring role in the TV series Riverdale. As Joe comes out of his shell, what first struck us as simple transforms into the ultimate disconnect between a character and his surroundings. At 36, Joe should have five- to ten-year-old children, not a 23-year-old and twin 18-year-olds who look like they could be his siblings. His strange life path has resulted in a half-formed person, a caring and good dad who has led a superficially contented life, who nonetheless missed out on any number of developmental milestones and now finds himself on the verge of being an empty nester before age 40. As the character breaks down over the course of the narrative, Melton gives us every bit of this conflict in a performance that earned him a Golden Globe nomination.
Moore’s and Portman’s characters are both perverse in their own ways. In the case of the former, that’s the result of living through a quarter century defined by the actions that got her jailed, though clearly she possessed an essential personality defect that landed her in the situation in the first place. The movie star, on the other hand, is secretly a bit of a deviant, getting off on these characters’ lives in some sense, and too careless about whether her methods are hurting people. Both do incredible work with small performance details, and also get a moment to shine. In Moore’s case, that’s when her sanguine exterior crumbles late at night into hysterics. With Portman, it’s the intense first monologue where we see everything she has ruthlessly collected from Gracie during their time together.
Haynes spends time with the other collateral damage from Gracie and Joe’s relationship, most notably the twins (Elizabeth Yu and Gabriel Chung), and most hauntingly in Gracie’s son from her first marriage, Georgie (Cory Michael Smith), who just wants to set the world on fire. And who can blame him, when his mum slept with someone from his own grade at school. Haynes’ methods are such that he can give all these characters a fair shake, and still be looking at them askance through the subtlest of fish eye lenses.
Zarvos’ score is doing work that recalls Haynes’ earlier work, such as the second time he and Moore worked together in Far From Heaven. That film was consciously a melodrama inspired by the works of Imitation of Life director Douglas Sirk. Instrumentation that is heavy handed in all aspects tends to draw attention to itself in regrettable ways, but that’s only if it is being employed without thought. Here, it focuses on the apparent contradiction that while this is all the wild stuff of soap opera, it is also the real experience of people who may resemble us in more ways than we think.
May December opens in cinemas today.