Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore in "May December" Source: Netflix

Review: 'May December' a Slippery, Complex Character Study

C.J. Prince READ TIME: 3 MIN.

In "May December," Todd Haynes' latest film, we learn about a scandal in the '90s. Gracie Atherton (Julianne Moore), a pet store worker with a seemingly happy marriage and family, was caught having an affair with her coworker, a seventh grade boy named Joe Yoo (played as an adult by Charles Melton). Gracie was arrested, a tabloid scandal erupted, and she was sentenced to prison while carrying Joe's baby. After finishing her sentence, Gracie and Joe married, had more children, and spent the next two decades living a quiet life in Savannah, Georgia.

The story begins at this point, 20 years after Gracie and Joe's affair, when their lives get upended by the presence of Elizabeth (Natalie Portman), an actress playing Gracie in a film about the scandal, who visits Gracie and Joe over several weeks to better prepare herself for the role.

It's a charged premise, one that takes direct inspiration from the real-life case of Mary Kay Letourneau, and a perfect fit for a filmmaker like Haynes, who gleefully leans into the ambiguity and thorny aspects of Samy Burch's screenplay.

The purpose of Elizabeth's time with Gracie and her family is to, in her words, find the real person behind the headlines and gossip. Hearing Elizabeth explain herself evokes the recent trend of rehabilitating the images of people who were once pop culture punchlines; think of how Ryan Murphy and Sarah Paulson turned Marcia Clark into a sympathetic figure in "American Crime Story."

Of course, Gracie's actions were far more heinous than a Marcia Clark or even a Lorena Bobbitt, and it takes little time for Haynes to question the "reality" Elizabeth hopes to uncover. Her prying into Gracie and Joe's past reveals a stubbornness in both, a persistent need to follow through on their past actions without interrogating or looking back on them. And then Elizabeth, as she gradually begins to mimic the looks and manners of her muse, reveals her own twisted, unethical methods of getting closer to Gracie and Joe.

Haynes and Burch do not psychologize either woman, so viewers can only observe and make up their own conclusions. There's little ground to stand on in trying to figure out "May December," and when you think you're close to understanding these characters, a new development knocks you down.

Moore and Portman rise to the challenges of the material, and you can sense their excitement at getting to work their way through the knottiness of the script. Moore, now working with Haynes for a fifth time, takes on the task of playing someone designed to be impenetrable. Friendly and docile, then cruel and demanding from one moment to the next, Moore makes Gracie's series of contradictions naturalistic and alluring; despite her persona of the friendly housewife, her friends and family remain intimidated by her, and Moore shows why.

But it's Portman who impresses the most, with her best performance to date. In over her head and assured at the same time, Portman turns Elizabeth into an enigma as her behavior shows insecurities and a manipulative edge that makes it tough to pin her down. At the same time, she has to embody Gracie in her preparation for the upcoming film shoot, which Portman does in ways that can be subtle or over-the-top, as if she's perfectly tuned into the same tonal wavelength as Haynes.

Eventually, "May December" becomes less unmoored through Joe, who takes on a more central role as he begins to examine his past and the nature of his relationship with Gracie. Melton does a fine job acting as the film's emotional anchor, although it comes across as an act of restraint when the film could have gotten even thornier.

Haynes and cinematographer Christian Blauvelt establish a strong visual sense that underscores ideas around perception and truth, like the frequent use of mirrors (which, as we know, provides a skewed perception of ourselves we accept to be true). The various ways that the film plays on expectations and forces viewers into an ambiguous space are best left to discover for oneself rather than explain. "May December" is a slippery film, and that slippery nature is likely to turn off people who prefer their films to stay self-contained. But most will hopefully find a thrill in the uncertainty, and know that with the likes of Haynes, Moore, and Portman, they can trust that they're in good hands.

"May December" opens in limited theatrical release Nov. 17, then streams on Netflix starting Dec. 1.

by C.J. Prince

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