Mostly a film about performance and partly about identity, Todd Hayes’s May December is quite a fascinating film on many levels. An artful, rangy, and engrossing psychological drama that merges elements of melodrama, wry humor, and many other intricate themes, the film is a remarkable feat, thanks to Hayne’s fearless vision and extraordinary directing skills. Hayne’s mostly three-way chamber piece will certainly catch fire and become the most provocative American film of 2023.
You can sense that Hayne’s hasn’t lost his peak as a filmmaker, who’s a visual stylist, where he has grown stronger followings over the years. Hayne’s has always stretched his formal style with each film, and he’s always been engaged with issues about repressed humans enduring the emotional forces of the wider world. Arthouse and fans of Haynes in general will hopefully be impressed. But modern film buffs who might be uneasy with its subject matter might be reluctant, but how the film is about tabloid scandals could appeal to genre movie buffs as well, especially ones that are open to edgier films. The inevitable Oscar buzz will get audiences talking, and I anticipate a very polarizing reaction once it hits Netflix on December 1st.
With Haynes once again casting his favorite leading lady, Juliane Moore returns once again in their fifth film together. Their collaboration began with Hayen’s 1995 Safe, which gained Julianne Moore and Haynes a lot of notoriety, Independent Spriit Award nominations, and eventually its own Criterion Blu-Ray that has given Hayne’s sophomore feature great shelf life. In 2002, Haynes also guided Julianne More to her first leading Oscar nomination for Far From Heaven, and here they are again with May December, which made a splash at Cannes back in May. Loosely based on the 1990s tabloid scandal story of Mary Kay Letourneau, who, at age 34, had an affair with her Vili Fualaau, a 12-year-old student in Washington State. Letourneau was arrested, indicted, and prosecuted for second-degree rape, and she was imprisoned for six years. While imprisoned, she gave birth to her and Vili’s child, and upon being released in 2004, she continued the relationship, which led to marriage and another child.
By switching locations and names, Moore plays her vision of Mary Kay as Gracie Atherton-Yoo. It is set in modern times, and she is in her mid-50s and married to Joe Yoo (Charles Melton), who is now 36. It has been more than a few decades since the media frenzy, but the scandal now feels quaint as they are now a suburban family where Gracie bakes for her community and Joe is a medical assistant. They also have twin siblings, Mary (Elizabeth Yu) and Charlie (Gabriel Chung), who are about to graduate from high school, and their older daughter, Honor (Piper Curda), is off in college. The film opens with Hollywood actor Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Porton), who was just cast to play the lead in an independent movie about Gracie and Jo’s problematic romance. Elizabeth is certainly renowned, as nearly everyone she encounters always raves about a TV mini-series she was in titled Norah’s Ark. Elizabeth ends up traveling to Grace and Joe’s town and visiting their community to spend a week or so doing some research on Grace, Joe, the family, exes, and other acquaintances so she can gain greater empathy and insight for the role.
Grace and Elizabeth end up having a subtle rivalry that holds some tension, but Elizabeth stays diplomatic about Gracie’s passive-aggressive hostility. Especially when she finds out she has been interviewing her ex-husband Tom (D.W. Moffet) and son, Georgie (Cory Michael Smith), from her first marriage, which caused the family so much heartbreak during that time. Eventually, there is a power dynamic between the two women that holds various pedigrees to the inner and outer wants of each woman’s goals. Elizabeth is certainly embarking on this journey to benefit her self-interests instead of the family, but Gracie can sense the deception, and both women end up domineering in their own ways. Gracie is also in deep denial of the troubled relationship.
There are some shades of narcissism in both women. Both are incapable of thinking of the emotional devastation that their own self-interests are creating for others. For Gracie, she rationalizes to Joe during a very emotional scene that he was the one who seduced” her at age 12. For Elizabeth, it’s finding the emotional truth and authenticity of the character she is about to embody. Regardless, there are striking similarities to both women’s psyches, and Haynes plays on this during a sublime scene in which Elizabeth asks Gracie about her foundation and make-up, in which Gracie ends up putting on her own make-up on Elizabeth in a very astonishing long-take 2-shot of both women standing in front of the bathroom mirror.
Aesthetically and tonally, Hayne’s is clearly inspired by the execution of Robert Altman’s 3 Women here, which was also part of the mistaken identity themes that we have seen before with Bergman’s Persona and continued in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. Yet, Hayne’s prevents it from feeling a riff from those films, as Hayne’s the dynamics are always shifting and Haynes experiments with how life imitates art once Gracie comments to Joe that they are both 36 (which is also the same age Gracie met Joe in their relationship). Elizabeth finds herself getting very flirty and even feeling sexual around Joe’s presence, and you can sense he is holding back his desires as well.
There is a power play between the three. In the beginning scenes, Gracie and Joe appear to be a loving couple on the outside. Yet the relationship feels more like that of a domineering mother, where she lectures him for taking a second beer or scolds him for smelling like charcoal once he lays down next to her in bed. She also gets onto him for his pet caterpillars, which serve as visual motifs for his own personal liberation. As Elizabeth’s visit continues, we begin to see Joe’s repression come out as he vicariously empowers his son to live his younger life to the fullest after smoking a joint together on the house roof. Esterson’s performance is quite moving, one that holds some regrets, humility, and longing, as he is clearly a tormented soul. One that made me recall Dennis Quaid’s character of gay repression in Far From Heaven, in which Joe still yearns for his lost years that he will never get back. Another great scene involves a long-take tracking shot of Joe opening up emotionally to Elizabeth as they walk together at dusk. Joe can sense Elizabeth’s playful flintiness, which he awkwardly and politely gets out of those exchanges. But is it out of fear of upsetting Grace? The film offers a lot of rich ambiguities in the characterization of the narrative and in the character portrayals as well.
While Haynes has always had elements of melodrama with Far From Heaven, his HBO mini-series Mildred Pierce, and Carol, which are all about characters enduring various new emotions and desires in quaintly oppressive eras, there is nothing ever vindictive about Hayne’s characters or actions. Their actions and emotions always arise so naturally. Hayne’s has always been a master at exploring human complexity; he does it again. One of the most revealing scenes in the film is when Elzabeth attends Mary’s high school drama class and one of the students asks about sex scenes in movies. Mary appears to subtly channel Gracie’s desires as she vividly opens up about doing sex scenes in front of high schoolers as the whole classroom, including Mary, begins to feel very uncomfortable. Elizabeth then begins to explain how she enjoys playing reprehensible people so she can find those “complex gray areas,” which leads to Mary feeling very uneasy about her playing the role of her mom. It’s moments like this where Hayens and screenwriter Samy Burch’s film becomes very psychological as everyone begins to unravel, including Gracie’s lisp, which she has spent years masking and begins to slip out more from the tension Elizbeth is bringing to her relationship and family. Elizabeth begins to pick up on it, and it becomes more animated in the third act, which is either overbaked or a brilliant stylistic choice on Moore and Haynes part.
Of course, when the film really ignites whenever Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman are on screen together, it is inevitable that Elizbeth will embody the traits, mannerisms, and emotions of Gracie, but Gracie also shows she has showmanship as well. Mirrors become a very striking motif here. Haynes is again evocative in his visual style, which echoes both the late Ingmar Bergman and Robert Altman, where the camera slowly zooms in, and we gaze at the psychological tension brewing between the characters. And when the camera isn’t moving, the striking static shots by cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt observe each of the characters own perception of the past, free to rationalize and contemplate their inner lives, and for Elizabeth, her creativity. For Haynes, these images certainly evoke the narrative up until the brilliant final scene, which might frustrate some viewers looking for a simpler resolution. Though May December is much edgier and a little more ill-at-ease than Hayne’s other sublime dramas like Far From Heaven and Carol, and with more in common with his allegorical drama Safe, it shares those films artistry and unsettling emotions. It forces the audience to observe each of the intricate layers and to find empathy in those gray areas that Elizabeth is trying to find. Even if May December will be misinterpreted by some detractors, but it will live on as a film of emotional and visual brilliance.
May December is now playing in limited theaters and will begin streaming on Netflix December 1st, 2023