A sultry melodrama with flashes of camp, May December is often ridiculous and occasionally devastating. Fans of director Todd Haynes shouldn't find this odd, even after his straightforward legal thriller Dark Waters. But its attempts to thread the needle between genuine human emotion and implausible human action aren't as successful as his past films. Luckily, the incredible acting makes up for any deficiencies.
Natalie Portman stars as Elizabeth Berry, a TV actress hoping to make a big splash in an upcoming independent film. She's slated to play Gracie (Julianne Moore), an infamous teacher who slept with her teenage student, then married him after prison. To research the role, she travels to Savannah, Georgia, to spend time with Gracie and her husband Joe (Thomas Melton). But the longer Elizabeth stays, and the closer she grows to both of them, the more fragile their relationship becomes.
The film often plays like a lurid erotic thriller from the '90s, when Gracie's face was on every tabloid at the supermarket. With stolen glances, hidden messages and rising temperatures, it feels like characters could hook up at any moment. But the film has an art to it, too. Breaking his longtime partnership with Edward Lachman (due to the latter recovering from surgery), Haynes uses Christopher Blauvelt, the go-to DP for his fellow Portlander Kelly Reichardt. Blauvelt favors '70s-style zooms for exteriors but long takes for interiors, adding to the dramatic tension of the film. A static shot at a dress shop reveals an incredible amount about Elizabeth, Gracie, and Gracie's youngest daughter (Elizabeth Yu) in just a few minutes.
Everyone in this movie is pretending on some level. But figuring out the what and why is a challenge for Elizabeth and the audience. The former pushes forward when people withhold information or reasoning. But at a certain point, it's no longer clear whether this is for research or just to mess with people. "At some point we crossed a line, but now I'm not even sure I know where the line is," Elizabeth reads in a letter Gracie wrote Joe before they were discovered. Given what all these characters have done to each other, some still don't know, and some know and don't care.
All this has an enormous effect on Joe, and Melton quietly steals the movie from these two Oscar winners. As a boy, he was thrust into the national spotlight. He became a father, a husband and a laughingstock before he graduated high school. All these years later, he has the emotional baggage, but not the vocabulary or coping skills to properly deal with it. His final scenes are devastating, even when he's not saying anything.
But the impact is dulled a little bit by how salacious the rest of the film is. Haynes pulled this off in his period pieces (Far from Heaven and Carol), but doesn't quite get there in this film. Still, with a trio of great performances, May December makes for one of the year's most engaging stories.