Review: May December

Score: B+

Director: Todd Haynes

Cast: Natalie Portman, Julianne Moore, Thomas Melton, D.W. Moffett

Running Time: 113 Minutes

Rated: R

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.


About Kip Mooney

Kip Mooney
Like many film critics born during and after the 1980s, my hero is Roger Ebert. The man was already the best critic in the nation when he won the Pulitzer in 1975, but his indomitable spirit during and after his recent battle with cancer keeps me coming back to read not only his reviews but his insightful commentary on the everyday. But enough about a guy you know a lot about. I knew I was going to be a film critic—some would say a snob—in middle school, when I had to voraciously defend my position that The Royal Tenenbaums was only a million times better than Adam Sandler’s remake of Mr. Deeds. From then on, I would seek out Wes Anderson’s films and avoid Sandler’s like the plague. Still, I like to think of myself as a populist, and I’ll be just as likely to see the next superhero movie as the next Sundance sensation. The thing I most deplore in a movie is laziness. I’d much rather see movies with big ambitions try and fail than movies with no ambitions succeed at simply existing. I’m also a big advocate of fun-bad movies like The Room and most of Nicolas Cage’s work. In the past, I’ve written for The Dallas Morning News and the North Texas Daily, which I edited for a semester. I also contributed to Dallas-based Pegasus News, which in the circle of life, is now part of The Dallas Morning News, where I got my big break in 2007. Eventually, I’d love to write and talk about film full-time, but until that’s a viable career option, I work as an auditor for Wells Fargo. I hope to one day meet my hero, go to the Toronto International Film Festival, and compete on Jeopardy. Until then, I’m excited to share my love of film with you.