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May December ★★★1/2

Availability: Showing in theaters nationally; began streaming on Netflix December 1; see JustWatch here for updated streaming information.

Women on the Verge of Moral Ambiguity

“I’m interested in morally ambiguous characters,” responds Elizabeth, a 36 year-old actress portrayed by Natalie Portman, to a student’s query about how she chooses her roles. The morally ambiguous reference is to Gracie, a now-60 year-old who had an affair with a not-quite-13-year-old some 20 years ago. Like Mary Katherine Letourneau, on whom Gracie (Julianne Moore) is loosely based, Gracie marries the boy, Joe, and has children with him, one while she is in prison for the rape of a pre-teen. (In 2022 a tenured philosophy professor at the State University of New York at Fredonia was barred from campus for posing the question of whether it is ever moral for an adult male to have sex with a “willing” 12-year-old girl.)


It’s not Gracie whose ethics are front-and-center.


Director Todd Haynes treats the salacious facts as background, a tableaux for delving into the morally ambiguous—and it’s not Gracie whose ethics are front-and-center. The word “rape” is never used; the affair and prison baby are briefly shown in a tabloid montage. At the center of Haynes’s film, and Samy Burch’s screenplay, is Elizabeth.


That’s to Haynes’s point: moral ambiguity (not to mention moral certainty) doesn’t necessarily reside in the tabloid version of life.


The contrived context for the encounter between Elizabeth and Gracie is Elizabeth’s stay in Savannah to spend time with Gracie, her family, and others involved in the story, in preparation for a docudrama about Joe and Gracie (to be played by Elizabeth) that shortly will begin shooting. Moore and Portman are at their best as two women who intimately circle around each other, to the point that they begin to resemble one another, differences of 20 years and coloring notwithstanding. And that’s to Haynes’s point: moral ambiguity (not to mention moral certainty) doesn’t necessarily reside in the tabloid version of life.

Elizabeth (Natalie Portman) studies Gracie (Julianne Moore) for a docudrama in which she'll star as Gracie, to the point that they begin to look alike.

Early on we learn Gracie is not embarrassed about her past, expressly stating she has no regrets and doesn’t dwell on what has happened. Elizabeth views that attitude with skepticism and even alarm; she thinks of herself as the adult in the room. In the class, Elizabeth answers a student who asks her about sex scenes by explaining that the line between acting and feeling is often blurred: “Am I pretending to have feelings, or am I pretending not to?” That blurred line is a key to Haynes’s approach to Elizabeth: she’s a person who lacks self-knowledge.


“May December” is a tour de force in defying audience expectations.


“May December” is a tour de force in defying audience expectations—that the rape of a 12-year-old is what should hold our interest, that the adult who takes up with a child is morally repugnant, that the method actress is our rational protagonist, able to know the “truth” and put it on screen. Instead, and despite her efforts to “inhabit” Gracie and understand what she experienced in the back of the pet store stock room as that 36-year-old, Elizabeth is remarkably shallow, unable to see others for what they are or believe they are, and incapable, even, of honest passion (“it’s what adults do,” she explains to Joe in a chilling scene). The multiple takes of a reenactment in the docudrama, complete with an intentionally overdone and ironizing metaphor, reinforce the point.

Twenty-four years after their affair, the now 60-year-old Gracie (Julianne Moore) and 36-year-old Joe (Charles Melton), married with kids, appear to still be in love.

Each of the major characters is a study in the impossibility of knowing a person. Gracie in some ways is more a child than Joe; she sobs in his arms when a customer cancels a cake order. She wants her children (who range in age from 17 to 36) to like her, but doesn’t know how to be nice to them, her language unfiltered and insensitive, even when her daughter seeks approval while trying on graduation dresses. She’s secure and, at the same time, neurotic. We first see Gracie in her kitchen, staring into her refrigerator before she announces—as incredibly loud, thumping music (a version of Michel Legrand’s score from Joseph Losey’s 1971 “The Go-Between”) dramatically concludes—“We don’t have enough hotdogs.”


Melton imbues the stolid, mostly quiet Joe with ambiguity, with the possibility that what looks like strength could be unrecognized repression.


In between the two women is a boy/man, Joe, now 36, with a “kind of quiet strength,” according to Elizabeth, who thinks she understands him as a trapped victim (“you can start your life over”). She might be right with both statements, and she might not be. That “quiet strength” manifests itself in Joe’s interactions with his son and his wife, but it also could reflect Joe’s unexamined life. Charles Melton, a Juneau-born Korean-American (until now known mostly as the conceited jock in TV’s “Riverdale”), already has won 4 awards for his performance as the third side of this triangle, the person who, unlike the two women, is slow to put his feelings into words. Melton imbues the stolid, mostly quiet Joe with ambiguity, with the possibility that what looks like strength could be unrecognized repression. It’s worth considering that the agent of Joe’s reawakening, such as it is, is the film’s most untrustworthy character.

Elizabeth (Natalie Portman) visits Joe (Charles Melton) at his work, in her attempt to get to know him, but her understanding may be as far apart as they are in this still.

The recycled or sampled Legrand score, the contrivances (including chrysalises becoming freed butterflies), the smattering of laughs (at least from the 3 other people in the theater for an early afternoon showing in Los Angeles), and some applause at the end may be indicators of the “camp” label some have put on this Cannes Palme d’Or nominee. It’s not our take.

In the process of trying to understand Gracie (Julianne Moore), whom she'll play in the upcoming docudrama, Elizabeth (Natalie Portman), right, almost becomes her, blurring the line between acting and reality.

At the core of Haynes’s 2015 “Carol,” a story of a society woman’s attraction to a shop clerk set in the 1950s, is forbidden romantic attraction, between two women. In “May December” Haynes again constructs an intriguing duet between women, this time without the romance, challenging our notion of how well we can know the other—and ourselves. As with Cate Blanchet and Rooney Mara in “Carol,” Haynes gets stellar performances from his two Oscar-winning leads, and the quiet man filling the space between them. Method acting, an axiom of the film industry since the 1940s and a stand-in here for Elizabeth’s arrogant assumption that she can summon the emotion to understand what happened between Gracie and Joe decades ago, does not fare well.


Date: 2023

Director: Todd Haynes

Starring: Julianne Moore, Natalie Portman, Charles Melton

Country: United States

Language: English

Runtime: 117 minutes

Other nominations: 7 wins (4 of them Melton’s, including a Gotham Award for Best Supporting Actor) and 2 other nominations

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