By George Bate & Josh Reilly B.
Films aren’t always meant to entertain or elicit shocks and laughs. Indeed, many of the best films of all time aren’t ones you necessarily want to revisit or recollect as having a fond time viewing. These are the kind of thought-provoking projects that explore unsettling topics, pose uncomfortable questions, and, ultimately, explore difficult ideas and emotions in a manner that challenges the audience. May December, a new Netflix film from director Todd Haynes, firmly fits this category.
May December is a psychological drama that is loosely inspired by the story of teacher Mary Kay Letourneau, who had a sexual relationship with a 12-year-old student. The film stars Juliane Moore as Gracie Atherton-Yoo, a woman who was at the center of a national scandal when she, at the age of 36, was caught having a sexual relationship with a 13-year-old boy Joe Yoo. Years later, Gracie is married to a grown-up Joe (played by Riverdale’s Charles Melton) and the two are having a film made about their scandalous and controversial relationship. In preparation for starring as Gracie in the film adaptation, actress Elizabeth Berry (played by Natalie Portman) spends time with Gracie and Joe as she researches the couple and grows closer to their family.
May December comes from director Todd Haynes, who crafted two of the most thought-provoking films in recent years with Carol and Dark Waters. Amidst a rather remarkable filmography that also includes the Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There, Haynes’ latest effort is his most accomplished. At its core, May December explores two challenging and disturbing topics in tandem: the insidious effects of predatory sexual relationships and the process by which actors develop true stories into films. It’s a testament to the strength of Haynes’ work that he excels in exploring both of these surprisingly compatible ideas.
Most strikingly, the film is an unsettling chronicle of an adult woman’s decades-long sexual and romantic relationship with a man she first met as a minor. The viewer is thrown head first into the story without any context with Portman’s character Elizabeth meeting Moore’s Gracie and Melton’s Joe. Details are provided sporadically and patiently to the audience about why Elizabeth is playing Gracie in a movie, with the full and disturbing extent of the predatory relationship revealing itself slowly over time. Haynes does not shy away from exposing his audience to the uncomfortable sides of this relationship, situating viewers in the perspective of Portman’s character as an outsider looking in.
In exploring the controversial relationship at the heart of the film, it’s Charles Melton as the troubled Joe Yoo that stands out, even beyond acting heavyweights Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore. Melton’s performance as a man groomed by an older woman, who he has been in a sexual and romantic relationship with since he was 13-years-old, is nothing short of spectacular. With such precision with his body language and vocal tone, Melton portrays a lost man, whose entire life was predetermined by an abuser. Melton embodies the role of a man trapped in childhood, someone who has grown to normalize the trauma they experienced and even find disturbing comfort in it. Portman and Moore deliver solid performances here, but Melton is the reason to watch May December; his performance, the emotions he portrays and evokes, and the way in which the pervasiveness of childhood sexual trauma is portrayed are beyond powerful.
Side-by-side with this exploration of a predatory relationship is a theme seldom explored in film or television – how actors approach making films based on true stories. Haynes and his screenwriter Samy Burch pose a number of intriguing questions about this concept. How do people benefit from having their lives adapted into films? Is it ethical to take someone’s trauma and use it as the basis for a film? Are actors taking themselves too seriously as they go ‘method’ or spend time ‘researching’ their ‘subjects’? Can actors get too close to the people whose lives they are turning into a movie? May December plays around with all of these questions and more as it follows Natalie Portman’s Elizabeth character prepare for her role as Gracie in a feature film about her relationship with Joe. While the exploration of childhood sexual trauma and Melton’s performance serve as the emotional core of the film, some of its most interesting and darkly humorous points arise from its investigation into the nature of adapting true events into movies or shows. In other terms, if the emotion of the film lies with Melton’s character and themes related to trauma, the cognitive side of the film lies with Portman’s character and themes related to adapting true stories into movies.
Where May December stumbles is its third act and how it provides unsatisfactory resolution to its captivating exploration of such complex themes. The bulk of the film spends time posing and exploring challenging and interesting questions about difficult topics, which makes for a viewing experience both intriguing and compelling. Unfortunately, as the narrative draws to a close, it becomes clear that the story doesn’t provide much, if any, resolution to its various characters, plot threads, and themes. While this lack of a satisfying resolution may have been the aim of director Haynes and screenwriter Burch, it makes May December feel rather hollow in the end. It’s not that the film needed a big jaw-dropper of an ending, but some catharsis or direction with a conclusion would have greatly improved the film.
May December is a remarkable psychological drama that intriguingly explores complex themes of childhood sexual trauma and the validity of adapting true stories into movies with both emotional and narrative depth. While Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore deliver solid performances, it’s Charles Melton that stands out in one of the year’s best performances as a man who began a sexual relationship with an older woman when he was just 13. Unfortunately, the film falls short of its potential with an ending that lacks any resolution nor imbues any sense of purpose. The questions posed and explored in Todd Haynes’ film are endlessly intriguing, although the lack of answers to these questions proves frustrating. Nonetheless, May December is an accomplished film and the best of Todd Haynes’ filmography to date.