'May December' Is an Uncomfortable Look in the Mirror

Directed by Todd Haynes

Starring Natalie Portman, Julianne Moore, Charles Melton

Photo: Francois Duhamel / Netflix

BY Nathan AbrahaPublished Nov 30, 2023

Opening with a monarch butterfly laying its eggs, director Todd Haynes's latest effort reflects the same control and care for detail required to hatch a new creation. With an energetic and lighting-paced script by Samy Burch, May December delightfully combine with Marcelo Zarvos's score and Christopher Blauvelt's cinematography to present a film that's surprisingly campy given the subject matter.

As the opening scene fades, we are greeted by famed TV actress Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman) walking into a picturesque neighbourhood barbecue, full of drinks, laughter, kids running and dogs barking, all set against the backdrop of a peach-coloured summer sky.

Elizabeth's presence at this totally-not-for-show bash is in the name of research — she'll be starring as the barbecue's host, Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore), in an upcoming film. Elizabeth is introduced to Gracie's stoic — and much younger — husband, Joe Yoo (Charles Melton). Something's not quite right about this setup, but nothing is made clear yet. Haynes prefers to let the viewer draw their own conclusions, at least at first. 

From the outset, Gracie seems desperate to show how normal she is. She lives a life of respectability in Savannah, GA, as she tells it, anyways: she loves baking and gardening, is beloved by her community, and has two beautiful dogs, a big house, a loving husband and three children navigating the challenges of early adulthood. But Gracie is also a sex offender. 

Her husband, a classmate of her son Georgie (Cody Michael Smith) from her first marriage, was only 13 years old when they began a sexual relationship. He and a then-36-year-old Gracie met while working at the local pet shop, and the pair were eventually caught having sex in the stockroom, at which point Gracie was whisked off to jail.

Much like the real-life '90s tabloid frenzy surrounding schoolteacher Mary Kay Letourneau and her sixth-grade student Vili Fualaau, Gracie and Joe's relationship is one of manipulation, deceit and trauma — a manipulation that Elizabeth probes every second she gets to know the couple, filling Gracie with fear and anger.

May December handles the delicate subject of grooming through the lens of the often-ignored aftermath, long after the flashes of the cameras and the whispers of people disappear. The film shows the depravity of Gracie's relationship with Joe with a focus on the mundane — they cuddle, cook together, ask one another favours, lightly complain when chores aren't completed. Gracie's grooming isn't violent; it's a subtle process of normalization, where viewers, much like Joe, almost forget what's in front of us. May December serves as a reminder that, even when the frenzy behind a story evaporates, real people are left behind — people like Joe. 

Gracie holds power as the matriarch of her household. She's calculating and a puppet master, knowing exactly the correct strings to pull. Aided by Moore's layered performance, Gracie is a woman with an undercurrent of menace, yet convinced of her own purity, as if actively coopting her victim's innocence as her own. She's unable to accept why the world refuses to understand that she was seduced by a 13-year-old boy.

The film holds an air-tight pacing through its runtime. Scenes melt into each other without fatigue, like a choreographed tango. And much like a dance between two seasoned partners, Portman and Moore play off each other with almost pseudo-eroticism, mirroring one another more directly over time. Portman's performance in particular stands out, as she plays Elizabeth with a mouth-watering coyness that glues viewers to the screen.   

The conscious blurring of the lines between Gracie and Elizabeth shows the way they serve as a reflection of each other. Haynes highlights this many times — sometimes with subtlety, such as the scene where Gracie points out the women share a similar height, and sometimes more blatantly, like when Gracie applies her makeup on Elizabeth and both stare in the mirror with the same expression.

May December grabs the viewer's gaze and turns it around against themselves. It's a film that criticizes the perverse lack of accountability — not just within the characters, but also regarding society's tendency to reduce events into tabloid headlines, and Hollywood's penchant for turning the pain of others into roles of a lifetime. Gracie is an abuser, Joe is a victim and Elizabeth is a vulture that comes to feast — yet they are allowed to exist without adequate resolution as participants or victims of the society of spectacle.

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