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NYFF Review: May December

(L to R) Natalie Portman as Elizabeth Berry and Julianne Moore as Gracie Atherton-Yoo in May December.
Photo Credit: Francois Duhamel / Courtesy of Netflix

The latest film from Todd Haynes, director of Carol and Dark Waters, is a multi-faceted story of truth that features some searing dark comedy that’ll have audiences cackling and performances that elevate the film’s enthralling story about truth and perception.

May December sort of has a meta backbone, as it follows Elizabeth (Natalie Portman), an actress who shadows married couple, Gracie (Julianne Moore) and Joe (Charles Melton), for an upcoming film about their controversial relationship where she’ll portray Gracie. Although Gracie and Joe appear to be very happy, there was a time when they were in the headlines of tabloids for the bizarre nature of their relationship.

Many years ago, when Gracie was in a previous marriage, she started a secret relationship with Joe — when he was 13 years old — and it led to their affair being discovered and Gracie being sent to prison. Once Gracie was released, she and Joe continued their relationship and built their own family. With Elizabeth’s persistent prying into the fallout of their affair and wanting to shadow Gracie’s life, her presence becomes a potential threat to Gracie and Joe’s relationship as she unearths unresolved feelings.

While the initial explanation of the film’s premise may make May December seem like it’s a dissection of the creation of biopics, there are a lot of grounded and relatable topics explored throughout. Through Elizabeth’s digging, the film dives into themes surrounding truth and perception that engage the viewer. It’s surprisingly thrilling to decipher if Gracie and Joe are being completely honest about themselves, and the film touches on the impact of people rediscovering their story in subtle ways. Gracie and Joe’s perspectives also shed light on what it’s like to live on after being negatively perceived in the public eye — which is especially relevant considering the current state of cancel culture. May December is almost a test of your perception because of this and it makes you think of how personal compassion plays a role in determining your feelings on these characters and their actions.

May December plays around with a number of themes and ideas throughout its experience and with so much meat to chew on, the film’s trio of talented leads absolutely excel in this story. Portman is a total chameleon as Elizabeth, and you can’t help but feel transfixed by her every move. Elizabeth’s acting ability, as well as Portman’s, allows her to comfortably fit in any space or awkward situation that comes from her shadowing Gracie. Portman is super sly as Elizabeth and excellently drives the curiosity viewers will have towards Gracie and her relationship with Joe. Not to mention, her story has some great thematic threads about artistic desire and immersive acting that are fascinating to watch and add to the meta nature of her story.

Moore is equally fantastic and as much of a wildcard as Portman at times. She makes Gracie tough to completely understand in a way that’s engrossing and excellently displays a sense of mystery that makes you question what’s real and what’s not. One second, Gracie can seem sweet and inviting and then suddenly cold and closed-off. She embodies the personal struggle and hardship of Gracie having old wounds be opened but manages to still be this shady character who compels you to think deeper.

The power struggle that ensues between Portman and Moore on-screen is riveting and it feels like Melton is essentially caught in the middle — which perfectly encapsulates Joe’s character. Melton absolutely has a breakout moment with May December, as he acts as this quiet force who’s harboring unexplored feelings. When those feelings and tensions finally erupt, his performance becomes something really special. There’s a compelling scene with Joe truly opening up that Melton nails, adding new layers to Joe’s arc. Joe honestly has some of the most surprising development and perspective as a character in this film and Melton does a great job bringing some connective emotion to Joe’s realizations.

This trio easily should be top names in impending awards conversations and Haynes’ and screenwriter Samy Burch should be in those conversations as well. The narrative depth of these characters, themes, and central story are what make May December an experience that gets better with time. As more perspectives on Gracie and Joe are brought in and the tension slowly ratchets up as Elizabeth crosses some moral lines to get information, you’ll only feel more immersed in the film’s growing conflicts. Haynes does a great job keeping the mystery of these characters persistent and alive while also slowly bleeding out details that alter your views of them. His direction shows a needed patience to keep the engagement consistently high and intertwine all these themes and story threads effectively.

Burch’s writing is equally as strong, as she crafts great scenes where Elizabeth slowly gains new stances on Gracie—as well as her trying to get into Gracie’s head—that heighten the tension excellently. Every conversation Elizabeth has with Gracie and even her former family sheds light on Gracie and Joe’s story in interesting ways while never defining what’s actually true. The combination of Burch’s writing and Haynes’ direction though is through the film’s amazing dark comedic backbone.

The film’s melodramatic tone allows for these hilariously awkward interactions and not-so-subtle digs between Gracie and Elizabeth to culminate in comedic gold. Every performance leans into the film’s dark comedy perfectly and audiences will be roaring with laughter at some of the cutting the line deliveries. Best of all, though, are the technical elements Haynes brings for the film’s comedy. From wild push-in zooms to Marcelo Zarvos’s overdramatic score, Haynes utilizes some strong surrounding elements to elevate the film’s comedic tone in hilarious ways.

May December is a phenomenal showcase for everyone involved. It features amazing, awards-worthy quality in the depth of the writing, strong vision from Haynes, and three performances that can’t be missed. May December is a great mix of darkly comedic tones and riveting, mysterious storytelling that has the potential to be a genuinely thought-provoking crowd pleaser.

May December will release in select theaters on November 17 and streaming on Netflix on December 1.

Tom Moore
Tom Moorehttps://mooreviews.com/
Tom is always ready to see and review everything horrifying and hilarious that hits theaters, television, and video games...sometimes. You can check out his other reviews and articles on his blog, Mooreviews.

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