(Written by Allison Brown)
After reading countless people rave about May December at New York Film Festival, some of which who paid an outlandish $125 per ticket to do so, I went into my festival viewing with high expectations. Unfortunately, those standards were shattered early on. I feel as if I am in an alternate dimension, utterly confused by the endless praise.
Acclaimed director Todd Haynes takes us along to unravel the finer details of an unconventional “romance,” where it is intended that we partially believe a seventh-grade child seduced and fell in love with a 36-year-old married woman. The couple remains happily married decades later with teenage children to show for it, in addition to literal shit regularly delivered from enemies to their doorstep. If this pretense sounds absurd and unethical, that’s because it is. The past gets relayed to the audience through interviews conducted by actress Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman), who is set to play this woman, Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore), in a controversial independent film.
Haynes seems to embrace some level of pedophilia and grooming instead of actively condemning it. One character even goes as far to state, “the kids are cute, but not sexy enough,” in describing the casting of young Joe in their movie. Just when the narrative dips its toes into any kind of negativity towards the behavior, it is quickly brushed off. Whatever Haynes’ real and perhaps satirical intention is in the exploration of this topic, internet conspiracy theorists are sure to find sufficient cannon fodder.
May December is not sure if it wants to be a drama or a comedy, as it does not truly land its footing in either direction. Dramatic scenes are mundane slice of life set pieces exploring human behavior, which is likely to please some and bore many. Plot is sparse; long stretches of slow narrative are accompanied by far too brief drops of heavy, stimulating information. The comedic moments often feel like a parody of something we should be taking more seriously. A melodramatic score brings high camp each time the silliness emerges; it could have easily been paired with any throwaway Lifetime movie. Off-hand jokes included about body image are unwelcome in this modern era of body positivity, where so many are openly struggling with eating disorders.
Subtle eccentric intonation or delayed deadpan reaction is where May December succeeds comedically, but this is inevitable due to the Academy Award winning performers at the core. Portman does her best with a meager script; the nuance in her facial expressions and affectation in vocal tone is incredible. Loosely based on sex offender Mary Kay Letourneau, Moore’s character is a bit of a conundrum. Gracie slips in and out of an inexplicable lisp, almost infantilized until a late, character-defining interaction.
Creativity lacks depth, and appears half-baked when present. Joe (Charles Melton) spends much of the runtime texting someone off screen who is never really revealed; the graphics of each text wholly lack any imagination, existing as subtitles with plain typography. Repetition and metaphors are almost overused. The metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly is both discussed at length and shown repeatedly, perhaps implying that Berry’s intrusion has triggered a sort of delayed coming of age in the emotionally stunted Joe. Yet, Joe remains in nearly the same position by the conclusion, and any progressive confrontation attempted is immediately suffocated and repressed. The camera manipulatively shows a would-be mirror image of Elizabeth and Gracie over and over again, serving as a metaphor for Berry’s attempts to mirror her subject in behavior, perspective, and appearance. While potentially intriguing, this concept could have been explored further; it is ultimately a surface level execution.
May December straddled the line of ethics when it screened at NewFest on October 19th, comes to select theaters on November 17th, and finally arrives to stream on Netflix on December 1st.