May December

May December: (dir. Todd Haynes)

By: Adam Freed

Loosely ripped from the tabloid headlines that made former teacher turned sex offender, Mary Kay Letourneau into a household name, comes Netflix and director Todd Haynes’ May December.  Featuring two of the year's most nuanced and gravitational acting performances, May December puts a tantalizing spin on an attempt to make sense of a felonious encounter that evolves into a taboo and tumultuous romance.  Todd Haynes (Carol, Dark Waters) forces himself against the current of audience approval by framing a universally abhorrent story into a must see work of art.  There is a form of genius found in surrounding oneself with geniuses, and that is exactly what Mr. Haynes accomplishes by casting five time Oscar nominated, and Academy Award winner Julianne Moore as the fictional Gracie, a registered sex offender convicted of the crime of statutory rape, only to eventually marry and start a family with her victim, 23 years her junior.  Adding depth and intrigue to the foreboding story is Academy Award winner Natalie Portman who plays the role of Elizabeth, an acclaimed actress sent to research Gracie and her unconventional family, for a forthcoming film role.  It is through the framing device of Portman’s Elizabeth, that audiences are provided an angle through which it can moralize their astonishment with a subject unworthy of attention.  

Talent at the level of Portman and Moore is rare, and to see it unleashed with such patience and control makes May December into a film that cannot be missed.  Both masters of their art are in goosebump inspiring form as they play cat and mouse, one hiding behind an impenetrable wall of denial, the other an empty vessel desperate to be filled with the horrors that lie beneath the carefully guarded surface.  The duality of the two characters, equally motivated in opposite directions, is as astonishing as any two coexisting roles in recent memory.  The subtlety of Elizabeth’s layered emulation of Gracie via her infiltration of the unconventional family is a masterclass in acting personified.  Witnessing Portman’s evolution as she builds her character one interview at a time feels very much like a look behind the curtain, an opportunity to watch the meal prepared, rather than only tasting the end result.  Audiences will be tempted to turn to Portman in search of May December’s moral compass, but will only find an empty, yet powerful vessel of recreation, void of answers, haunting in her own way. 

Not to be outdone by her co-star, Julianne Moore presents the antithesis of this endeavor, as her Gracie is a fully formed character from the film’s outset, complete with a revisionist memory dripping in denial.  The formerly incarcerated sex offender never attempts likability, rather strives for martyrdom.  While audiences lean in with hopes of seeing what lies beneath the well protected surface of Moore’s visage, only the faintest of cracks are ever revealed. Moore’s deeply layered performance succeeds in protecting the vulnerabilities of a past darker than most care to imagine.   Haynes presents a canvas on which two generational talents are permitted to paint in opposition to one another.  The more the two artists learn, the more their universally desired outcome proves to be at odds with their diverging moralities.  Haynes' decision to allow Moore and Portman to share the screen in physical balance is a deliberate nod to their subjectively dual emotional states. One in complete denial, the other in an attempted emulation of that denial.  Todd Haynes has captured a pair of performances almost too mystifying and contrarian to be explained.  May December, as the title suggests is a story of opposites, it is not the best film of 2023, but it certainly belongs near the center of the conversation.

Target Score: 8.5/10 -  Standing on the shoulders of twin gargantuan performances by Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman, Todd Haynes has directed his greatest film.  Like an automobile accident, May December is too fascinating to avert one’s gaze, despite the lurking morality urging to do so.  (Netflix -  December 1).