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Review: Todd Haynes Offers a Confounding Look at Norm-Defying Relationships in May December

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May December review
Natalie Portland and Julianne Moore in May December (Netflix)

People have an inherent fascination with things that are societally unacceptable. Like the inability to look away from a car crash, inquisitive minds gravitate towards the unusual and the sensational. There’s a curiousity to understand how something happened or why someone is a particular way, though the objects of that attention may simply desire privacy. But all headline-making stories tend to head towards the same fate: being made into a movie. Todd Haynes‘ latest film May December is a bizarre, not entirely effective investigation of art imitating life and the surprising ways in which the reverse is also often true.

Actress Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman) arrives in Savannah, Georgia to research her latest part. She’ll play the role of Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore), who went to prison as a thirty-six-year-old when she became pregnant with the child of a seventh grader. The twist is that Gracie and Joe (Charles Melton) remain married after two decades, preparing to send their twins, the younger siblings of their tabloid-making first, to college. Elizabeth is startled to learn that Gracie appears to be well-liked in the small city she’s refused to leave, but a longer visit reveals more cracks than she initially saw in the foundation of a carefully calibrated existence.

Haynes is a visionary filmmaker behind CarolThe Velvet Underground and Wonderstruck. His latest feature represents a significant tonal departure from his most recent projects, abandoning any sense of the fantastical or of beautifully presented scenery to instead showcase a story of two people who are putting on an act. Gracie is going about her life as if it has gone the way she wanted, though it clearly matters to her that people like her, which many only pretend to, as one interviewee reveals to Elizabeth when he suggests that the clientele of her baking business are repeat customers only remaining loyal to appease her. Elizabeth is far from innocent herself, hardly guilty of pedophilia but prone to destructive actions with more severe consequences for others than for her.

It’s difficult to make sense of this film and the exact point it’s trying to emphasize. The score by

 Marcelo Zarvos is sharp and loud, often cueing a different reaction than a scene has conveyed. That discord turns certain moments that are seemingly meant to be dramatic oddly comedic, perhaps signaling the discomfort people find when wading into unfamiliar territory. It makes for a disjointed viewing experience, as does the editing by Alfonso Gonçalves, which fashions a much longer narrative than necessary, appearing to head towards a coda only to introduce several new arcs before it does eventually close.

Though not as inherently gorgeous as past films like Far from Heaven or Carol, Haynes does manage to use the camera to productive effect with the assistance of cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt. The similarities between Gracie and Elizabeth are shown through the wigs the actresses wear as their hairstyles align and the makeup they apply, but space is also utilized in an intriguing way, as they are seen speaking through mirrors, tipping the balance of power in their conversations as Elizabeth is the outside coming in to ask hard questions but Gracie is comfortable and stable on her own turf.

Moore, who collaborates yet again with frequent partner Haynes, and Portman, are both fantastic Oscar-winning actresses whose credits speak for themselves. Yet there’s something that doesn’t feel entirely grounded or realistic about their performances here. The melodramatic tone never quite lands. Moore puts on an oscillating lisp to reveal both a vulnerability and a mysteriousness to Gracie, while Portman plays Elizabeth as someone who feigns politeness but isn’t afraid to go in for the kill.

The stronger turns come from Melton as Gracie’s husband and Elizabeth Yu and Piper Curda as their daughters. May December, which sis streaming in early December, succeeds in confirming that unconventional relationships make people uncomfortable — but can’t quite peg how any of its characters truly feel about them.

Grade: B-

Abe Friedtanzer
Abe Friedtanzer
Abe Friedtanzer has been the editor of MoviesWithAbe.com and TVwithAbe.com since 2007, and has been predicting the Oscars, Emmys, Golden Globes, and SAG Awards since he was allowed to stay up late enough to watch them. He has attended numerous film festivals including Sundance, TIFF, Tribeca, and SXSW, and was on a series of road trips across the United States with his wife, Arielle, before they moved to Los Angeles. He is a contributing writer for Above the Line, Awards Radar, AwardsWatch, Below the Line News, CinemaDailyUS.com, The Film Experience, Film Factual, and Gold Derby.
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