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May December Movie Review

May December (2023)

Watch May December on Netflix
Written by: Samy Burch (screenplay by), Samy Burch & Alex Mechanik (story by)
Directed by: Todd Haynes
Starring: Natalie Portman, Julianne Moore, Chris Tenzis, Charles Melton
Rated: R
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Twenty years after their notorious tabloid romance gripped the nation, a married couple buckles under pressure when an actress arrives to do research for a film about their past.

This isn’t a retelling of the story, it’s a character study. We get three characters that question what happened. They all dance around the fact that it was wrong. Why did it happen? This doesn’t provide answers. It asks a lot of questions, leaving the answers for the viewer to guess. I waited for someone to condemn the relationship, but that doesn’t happen until near the end, and even then it’s not a direct repudiation.
It depends.

Haynes previous movies consist of, among others, Dark Waters, Carol, and Far from Heaven.

If you didn’t know the premise of this movie was the 1997 case of Mary Kay Letourneau, you’d wonder why this actress Elizabeth (Natalie Portman) has come to visit the couple, though it is clear the wife is much older than her husband.

Elizabeth is an actress doing research, and we get a glimpse of what this is. Gracie (Julianne Moore) was a middle school teacher that started a relationship with a middle school student Charlie (Joe Yoo). She went to jail, but here they are. This relationship is odd from the start. Gracie and Joe have a daughter in college, yet she seems to treat her husband like a child. It’s not projecting due to the nature of this relationship. Joe and his kid Charlie relate more like peers than parent and child.

Julianne Moore, Natalie Portman play Gracie, Elizabeth

Elizabeth asks when they first met. That’s a loaded question. Gracie’s son was in Joe’s grade. They met when Joe was only thirteen. Grace is defensive about her relationship with her children from her previous marriage and Joe states he doesn’t talk to them. We’re left to wonder, but I’d guess Gracie’s kids disowned her.

It seems like Elizabeth is prying into their lives because she is. We get why, but it still feels uncomfortable. Elizabeth is a reporter in a way, drudging up these memories that most people would prefer to forget. In their conversations, Gracie seems like she’s hiding something. Maybe that’s just due to how this relationship started, but at one point Grace passively aggressively body shames her daughter. It doesn’t help make her any more likable. As the movie progresses it seems that Gracie is preoccupied with control. A lot of her behavior centers on her controlling life and others. Reading between the lines, it seems to indicate what she liked about Joe. At one point Gracie cries over a cake a customer doesn’t want. She’s
outright bawling, and I don’t get it. Then again is that the point? You
can’t understand this person because it doesn’t make sense? That or she’s so obsessed with control and getting her way.

When Elizabeth interviews Gracie’s lawyer from back in the trial, he recounts that Gracie didn’t know she did anything wrong, which is a wild statement on all fronts. Gracie later states Joe has been with more women than she’s been with men. That’s certainly a statement.

Natalie Portman, Julianne Moore play Elizabeth, Gracie

When Elizabeth speaks at a high school, she discusses the line of being an actor and when it’s pretending and mechanical or when there is chemistry. In the end, you don’t know if you’re pretending. She gets rather graphic with teenagers, and I don’t know if that’s her or her invoking the role of Gracie. It seems related to her role.

The unspoken thing throughout this movie is the very fact Elizabeth is present. Through her everyone must confront this uncomfortable truth, and very far into the movie no one has condemned what happened. Joe is the first to directly address it, and he states he wanted it, but what he desired doesn’t factor in when he was thirteen and she was thirty-six. This movie is about the ripple this relationship caused. It’s a mark the family can’t escape because the relationship persists.

I was expecting more of an ending. We wait the entire movie for someone to acknowledge it was wrong on many levels. No one does, and the closest we get is a letter. This is a character study about a woman that craves control and the boy she traps. The letter Joe hid and saved that he gives to Elizabeth is his plea for help. After all of Elizabeth’s research, the clip of her movie looks more like a Lifetime movie we saw Elizabeth watching earlier. There’s no way for this relationship to ever escape the past. Even between Gracie and Joe, the relationship can’t move forward as she refuses to address the past.


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