Directed by Todd Haynes, May December tells the story of Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman), an actress tasked with researching the subject of her next film. For her latest role, Elizabeth has been tasked with bringing Gracie Atherton (Julianne Moore) to life onscreen, a woman who notoriously romanced Joe, a young Jr. High boy while she was an adult in her thirties. Now having been married for over two decades, Gracie and Joe (Charles Melton) live a simple life as they raise their three children together. In order to learn more about Gracie, Elizabeth asks to spend some time with their family, uncovering damage that has laid dormant for years.
With an intriguing (and horrifying) premise, what makes December memorable is some truly incredible work from its cast. As Gracie, Moore brings a blend of confidence and fury that is underscored by her utter fragility. Out in public, she puts on a façade of perfection and demands the same from her family. However, at home, she is left in the shadow of her own suffering, weeping herself to sleep and fearing heavy conversations about her relationship.
Even so, it’s Portman who offers some of her finest work years. Stepping into the role of the lost (but determined) Elizabeth, Portman fully immerses herself in her character with fear and trembling. For Elizabeth, this investigation into Gracie’s life isn’t personal. After all, in order to bring her character life, she needs to understand how these circumstances take place. But, as her inquest becomes more real, there are times where she blurs the line between fiction and reality. On the one hand, she’s willing to sit in the location of Gracie and Joe’s initial tryst, attempting to understand what it would have been like to experience pleasure in that location. On the other, her moments in a junior high school cause disgust within her soul as she realizes how young these students truly are.
There’s an emotional tightrope within the way that May December views this couple. And it’s very easy to fall from its height.
To their neighbors, Gracie and Joe seem like a mostly delightful couple. While there are those who despise them, there are others who seem to accept her them. Having gone to prison for her actions, the two continued their love affair, despite the ire of the culture around them. Now, after over twenty years together, the couple raised three children together and want to live in peace.
Even so, there continue to be concerns about the validity of their relationship that simmer underneath the surface. Understandably, those who remember the seedy beginnings of their story are deeply uncomfortable with it. Anyone who speaks about it does so in a way that doesn’t validate it, even if they want to support them now. Torn between care and condemnation, there’s a constant sense of conflict within their relationship with the community.
And, maybe the best example of this conflict lies within Joe himself.
Now a 36-year-old, empty nester, Joe redefines the very nature of midlife crisis. Having given away his youth and innocence to a woman over two decades older than he is, Elizabeth‘s visit causes him to reflect upon his past through lenses of pain. Suddenly, what he once he viewed as a love story begins to show the seeds of toxicity and abuse. For Joe, the long-term effects of his relationship to Gracie are real and he is only now coming to grips with what they may be.
Nevertheless, Elizabeth still tries to find a place of understanding. With squirmish discomfort, Elizabeth knows that, in order to bring her character to life, she needs to tap into the psychology of a woman interested in a Jr. High student. But, while it seems within reach, this level of understanding is also insurmountable. On the outside, Gracie’s actions are nothing short of reprehensible. But Elizabeth refuses to be satisfied with this answer, especially if she is responsible to bring her to life on screen.
Similarly, May December also feels the burden of this conversation. By delving into the psychology of a woman who began a relationship with someone so young, Haynes attempts to neither vilify nor absolve his characters of their actions. Gracie and Joe may have been together for nearly 25 years, but we still see the damage that has been left upon them both. Through their journey, Haynes imbues his characters with a certain likability that makes you want to wish them well.
But then, the film makes you remember… and you can’t shake the feeling of discomfort.
It’s this back and forth that makes May December compelling in its best of moments. Haynes wants to offer a certain sense of grace to his characters while never fully forgiving them either. Admittedly, that ambiguity will not be for everyone. But strong work by Portman, Moore and Melton ensure that there will be a lot to discuss this December.
May December is available on Netflix on December 1st, 2023.