Todd Haynes has spent so long in the world of melodrama and drama that it’s easy to forget his roots in comedy. Well, not so much comedy as a highly stylized absurdity, examining social morays and taboos through trashy exteriors. After all, the film that put him on the map was an illegal Carpenters biopic where all the characters are played by Barbie dolls. Haynes hasn’t really embraced this sense of satiric nastiness since his early work, yet he’s back now with one of his most audacious, horrific, and hysterical films to date: May December, a scathing comedy that’s funny until it’s not, in all the right ways.
Joe Yoo (Charlie Melton) and Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore) have an idyllic life – a nice house on an island off the coast of Savannah, Georgia, three kids, and general marital happiness. This is all upended, however, when popular TV actress Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman) comes to town in order to research Gracie for an upcoming film about their relationship. You see, Gracie and Joe met when she was in her 30s and he was 12, with the subsequent scandal becoming a major tabloid story. With Elizabeth in town digging up the past – and slowly becoming obsessed with Gracie during her “process” – and Joe facing being an empty-nester at 36, the couple is forced to face the hard truths they’ve always avoided about their “Romeo and Juliet love story.”
If you haven’t figured it out by now, Haynes and screenwriter Samy Burch are riffing on the real-life story of Mary Kay Letourneau and Vili Fualaau. It is a story that should not lend itself easily to a cinematic retelling – let alone in a comedy – and yet that’s what makes Haynes such an extraordinary director. He understands that, on a base level, this story is a condemnation of every facet of American society. The media, Hollywood, predatory power dynamics, the nuclear family, gender roles – nothing is safe from the original story, and nothing is safe from Haynes’ watchful gaze, or Burch’s scathing screenplay.
There are two stories – indeed, one could argue two different films – happening simultaneously; these stories complement and juxtapose each other to masterful effect. The film’s main plot, featuring Elizabeth and her investigation into Gracie’s life, is itself a scathingly hilarious Grand Guignol. There’s so much rich humor to be found in their mirror routine, from a critique of method acting (it is not lost on viewers that Elizabeth, who presents herself with great pomposity, is kind of a terrible actress only known for an unwatchable Grey’s Anatomy knockoff) to a far more prescient look at the lies people tell both themselves and others in order to survive.
Elizabeth isn’t quite as complex a character as Gracie or Joe, but she is fascinating in her own right. After all, she is the perfect analogy for a vapid and toxic media system. Like most characters in the film, Elizabeth walks the thin line between fiction and reality – made harder to decipher thanks to her documented inability to distinguish the two (an unwise situation when dealing with a couple whose relationship lives in that liminal space). It makes her character deliciously pompous yet painfully naive, and the perfect representation of a nation that feeds on toxic stories they find equally scandalous and titillating. Portman relishes every opportunity she’s provided, and it’s easily her funniest role to date. She commits to every insane choice thrown her way, and her dedication manages to keep the film on track, thematically and tonally.
Of course, the humor and horror of the film comes less from Elizabeth’s obsession and more from the fascinating enigma that is Gracie. Moore is truly exceptional in this role; it is possibly the best of her already-storied career. She hides Gracie behind a wall of self-delusion, leaving audiences to guess what is real and what is fake; what is calculated manipulation and what is pure insanity. Take, for instance, Gracie’s supposed derision of her own infamy. She laments the fact people “just won’t leave her family alone,” yet jumped on the chance to have Elizabeth play her in the movie. Is there a level of pride in the fame? Is it calculated – after all, their house is far too nice for how little they seem to earn? Or is she just completely devoid of self-awareness?
Unraveling the mystery that is Gracie is a deliciously challenging puzzle. Every decision is designed to keep audiences guessing her motivations and her mental state. Every time we think we have a handle on her, the film pulls the rug out from under us. Does she get off on exerting her own power and will, as she does with her children (there’s a scene involving dress shopping that ends with the most shocking reveal of the year)? Is she simply the product of toxic gender roles from her upbringing? Is she herself a victim, perpetuating a cycle of abuse she might not be aware of? Moore gives us no easy answers, instead simply relishing in Gracie’s passive-aggression and self-justifications.
However, while Elizabeth and Gracie are off in their nasty little comedy, the film makes sure to give equal attention to Joe’s own personal, heartbreaking story. Riverdale star Charlie Melton really is extraordinary in this role, managing to portray Joe as a completely normal guy who watches as the façade he’s built around himself begins to erode away. While Elizabeth is off having the time of her life digging up dirt, her presence forces Joe to confront harsh realities in his own life. It quickly becomes clear how rapidly he had to grow up, how much he’s missed, and how traumatized he is mentally – and what that means for the idyllic home life he’s built. It leads to a third act built on the ramifications of self-realization, and Melton will break your heart over and over again.
Burch’s taut, brilliant screenplay mostly serves as a three-hander between the actress and the couple, but there are a few smaller actors whose performances worthy of merit. Both of the performers playing the Atherton children – Elizabeth Yu and Gabriel Chung – are both excellent in their respective roles. Chung in particular has a real lived-in attitude as Charlie, who suffers under his mother’s passive-aggressive reign yet shares an intimate moment with his father on the rooftop. Lawrence Arancio has a small role as Gracie’s former lawyer, and shows what can be done with a small role in capable hands. And the film’s secret weapon may be Cory Michael Smith, who plays Gracie’s son from a previous marriage who is clearly suffering from the trauma that comes with who is mother is and what she’s done. He’s a magnetic wild card, and the film shines whenever he’s onscreen.
May December is a haunting, hysterical, scathing work by one of our greatest filmmakers. It is a film that entertains you in the moment and then weevils its way into your brain, preoccupying your thoughts with attempts to unwrap the enigma. I walked out of this film thinking it was good, not great. Two weeks later, I’ve thought about it more than almost any other film this year. It will immerse you from its taunting opening until its bleakly hilarious conclusion (the final reveal is one of the year’s funniest moments). This is the rare work firing on all cylinders, featuring career-best work from its three stars. And it is not a film to be missed.
May December is now streaming on Netflix