In every sense, May December is an actor’s film.
For one, the 10th feature from celebrated Portland director Todd Haynes (Carol, I’m Not There) hinges on a gripping dramatic triangle rendered by Natalie Portman, Julianne Moore and Charles Melton. For another, you’d be hard pressed to find a movie more fascinated by the ironies and byproducts of acting—in front of cameras, in one’s community, in a marriage.
Researching her next role, TV star Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman) arrives in Savannah, Ga., which is awash in Spanish moss and gossip. She’ll be playing a former tabloid sensation, a Mary Kay Letourneau-type named Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Moore), who’s settled into a seemingly comfortable marriage with her once 13-year-old victim and now 36-year-old husband Joe Yoo (Melton).
At first glance, Portman’s character could pass for a journalist. She roams the Atherton-Yoos’ all-American barbecue scribbling in her notepad, interviewing Joe and Gracie, and fending off their fears this forthcoming film will only exploit a family finally at peace. No, no, people are complex, Elizabeth assures everyone who asks. She just wants to capture “something true.”
But, of course, Elizabeth’s questions are not merely questions. She’s building her own Gracie character from the outside in. It’s a task perfect for the always well-studied Portman, in her best role since Jackie, playing a Hollywood actor absorbing her subject’s mannerisms and even retracing her scandalous steps. Already, Elizabeth shares Gracie’s high cheekbones and soft-spoken superiority, but she’s swayed by that eternally grubby true-crime question: How close can the reenactor actually come to touching the void?
Conversely, Moore—one of Haynes’ favorite collaborators from Far From Heaven (2002) and Safe (1995)—plays Gracie as operating from the inside out, unknowably so. Twenty years after the scandal, her ex-husband still wonders aloud: “What would make a 36-year-old woman have an affair with a seventh grader?”
Through crocodile tears and controlling gestures toward her children (excessive milk at dinner for alleged calcium deficiencies, scales as high-school graduation presents), Gracie obsesses over appearing maternal and harmless, giving the movie its black-comedy bona fides. To this end, Haynes affords Moore all the best scene-button lines. In an early example, she murmurs about running low on hot dogs, punctuated by reworked arrangements from Michel Legrand’s The Go Between (1971) score crashing through the scene like the Kool-Aid Man’s funeral dirge.
In this flexible yet foreboding tonality, May December is as cutting about the media’s inability to ethically process the notorious as Gus Van Sant’s 1995 neo-noir To Die For. (Notably, the original incident between Gracie and Joe would’ve occurred in the mid-’90s.) But Haynes’ tastes remain humanistic, committed to the melodrama as a Sirkian art form. May December takes its characters seriously—even if their fixations and coping mechanisms are tragicomic.
That’s especially true for Joe, whose profound dimensionality suggests Portman’s Elizabeth might be studying the wrong person. Melton, best known as a minor heartthrob in Riverdale, guttingly embodies Joe’s guileless man-child contradictions. He’s a successful radiologist and a loosely capable father, but only because he’s been cast in the role of adult by his family.
As Elizabeth’s growing intimacy with the family sparks tension, even a single line can carry different meanings. When Gracie caps an argument with Joe by murmuring, “It’s graduation…,” it’s an absurd joke. As in, we can’t get real right now; there’s a public event happening soon. Cut to Joe—someone whose teenage years vanished into premature fatherhood—and “it’s graduation” is a brutal reminder of deprival.
This is Haynes at the top of his game, adapting material so impressively slippery (from first-time feature writers Samy Burch and Alex Mechanik) that it could easily spiral into camp or scorched melodrama if he weren’t so precise.
But Haynes now has 30 years of films now testifying to the power of shifting private identity in the face of social opposition. A character like Gracie feeds on the gulf between her desires and how the world views her. Joe is emotionally stunted by it. For Elizabeth, the narrativized space between perception and reality is literally her business.
Granted, she’s a professional, but comprehending the parts these amateurs play every day is a bottomless task. Gracie and Joe don’t perform the roles of fastidious mother or supportive husband out of artistic ambition or curiosity or empathy or greed. It’s the only way to live with themselves.
SEE IT: May December, rated R, screens at the Hollywood Theatre, 4122 NE Sandy Blvd., 503-493-1128, hollywoodtheatre.org. Digital and 35 mm screenings start Friday, Nov. 17. $10-$12.