May December (2023)

Director Todd Haynes’ dissection of the groomer and predator relationship really is a movie that deserved so much more notice in 2023. Haynes’ approach to tackling a real criminal case notorious in the nineties is a fascinating platform to stage a complex drama and darkly comic film about stunted growth and Hollywood exploitation. Haynes’ film peels away at so many layers and how relationships tend to be somewhat glorified and sensationalized, especially in the realm of what occurs in “May December.” For those involved in this kind of dynamic, the whole interplay between the partners is somewhat spur of the moment, but the long-term effects amount to much more psychological baggage that the movie only skims the surface on.

Twenty years after their notorious tabloid romance gripped the nation, Gracie Atherton-Yu and her husband Joe (twenty-three years her junior) brace themselves for their twins to graduate from high school. When Hollywood actress Elizabeth Berry comes to spend time with the family to better understand Gracie, who she will be playing in a film, family dynamics unravel under the pressure of the outside gaze. And as Elizabeth and Gracie study each other, the similarities and differences between the two women begin to ebb and flow.

Haynes confronts a lot of interesting underlying ideas and emotions within this entire series of circumstances, all the while pegging Portman’s character Elizabeth as somewhat of a predator herself. Although she can assuredly act genuine with Joe and Gracie, she is always lurking in the corner and trying to take what she can to benefit her own ulterior goals. Despite being pegged as a potential Oscar contender, “May December” really has managed to sneak under the radar working as also a scathing commentary on how Hollywood can and does often exploit actual tragedy (in this case, the 1997 Mary Kay Letourneau scandal) and trauma for the sake of entertainment.

Haynes revels in the uncomfortable and cringe inducing, staging so many scenes where Elizabeth is thrust into situations that Gracie and Joe simply cannot escape. When we meet them, they’re two people who sought to live out their lives in about as remote a town as possible, and their torrid relationship and myriad questions they’re inevitably asked always amounts to anxious squirming and avoidance. Even with Elizabeth examining Gracie and Joe’s dynamic we can never really be sure what is truly unfolding, but we know that they are very much the classic predator and prey relationship. Gracie approaches Joe convincing herself she’s in love with him, but ultimately avoids and deflects any attempts to consider how they began their affair.

Meanwhile Joe is a child in a man’s body whose own childhood halted at the age of twelve when he began his affair with Gracie. Charlie Melton’s performance is absolutely Oscar worthy as he plays a young man at the beginning of his life who is doomed to domestic monotony and is not quite sure what to do with the rest of his life. Melton’s a man filled with regret and confusion, and in spite of his best efforts, every relationship in his life is tainted by Gracie. “May December” is truly an engaging and utterly intelligent character study filled with so much sardonic commentary about the lies that we tell ourselves and the productions that we consistently engage in to keep stability in our lives.