|Samy Burch, Alex Mechanik
|Natalie Portman, Julianne Moore, Charles Melton
|February 1, 2024
62-year-old director Todd Haynes has made some wonderful films – Velvet Goldmine, Far from Heaven, Carol – but May December may be his best yet. I wouldn’t describe it as a true story (too many details have been changed) but it’s loosely inspired by the creepy tale of a 34-year-old schoolteacher who had a sexual relationship with a 12-year-old student in 1996, conceived two children, and subsequently served a seven-year prison sentence for child rape. Upon release, she rekindled the relationship with the student, and they married a year later.
I like the film-within-a-film structure adopted by screenwriters Samy Burch and Alex Mechanik. Set in 2015, the central character is a well-known actress, Elizabeth (Portman), who is tasked with playing the paedophile schoolteacher, Gracie (Moore), in a major movie due to start shooting in a few weeks. Somewhat surprisingly, Elizabeth has been invited into the home of the now 59-year-old Gracie and 36-year-old Joe (Melton) to get a deeper understanding of the real-life person she will be depicting on screen.
If I tried to tally the number of questions asked by the characters in May December, I’d quickly lose count. It’s power games aplenty as folks try to glean useful information for their own benefit. Elizabeth uses her good looks and celebrity status to coax details from the family and connected townspeople. Gracie tries to ascertain what the movie will focus on and how she’ll be portrayed. There’s even a Q&A session (a great scene) where Elizabeth is invited to speak at the local high school and students pry into the world of a Hollywood starlet.
This is one of the best films of the year. On one hand, it’s a thought-provoking drama about an unthinkable family unit. How would you feel as one Gracie and Joe’s grown children (they have three in the film) knowing the way your parents first met? You can sense the awkwardness throughout. On the other hand, it’s an uncomfortable thriller about the way such stories are exploited for financial gain. How genuine are Elizabeth’s intentions and does she care about any of the people she smooth talks? What is the truth, and does it really matter? A powerful moment involving the contents of a pink envelope reveals a great deal.
The music score of Brazilian composer Marcelo Zarvos (Wonder) establish the sinister tone and the cinematography of Christopher Blauvelt (First Cow) leaves its own impression. There’s so many memorable conversations and long-takes – whether it be a simple scene applying make-up in front of a mirror, to more complex sequences where characters become highly emotional. Oscar-winners Natalie Portman (Black Swan) and Julianne Moore (Still Alice) are cunningly sensational, but I like the advice of director Todd Haynes in describing it as Joe’s story above all else. Charles Melton (Riverdale), in a career-launching role, skilfully portrays the character with a mix of passion and mystery.
Largely overlooked at this year’s Academy Awards (it received just a single nomination for best original screenplay), May December is as good, if not better, than other best picture nominees.