Twenty years ago near Savannah, Georgia, a middle-aged woman named Gracie Atherton made tabloid news due to her illicit affair with a 13-year-old Korean-American boy, Joe Yoo. Their liaison destroyed Gracie’s marriage, and rankled the entire town. Fortunately, as the years passed Gracie’s support network looked out for her, as well as her ex-husband, and their kids. Gracie eventually went into business for herself as a local cake decorator, providing treats for parties, reunions, and company picnics. As is often the case, the media hype evaporated, and life resumed in as “normal” a fashion as could possibly be expected.
And that’s the key word here: Normal. Gracie has obviously gone to great lengths to present herself as “normal,” which in her case means calm and placated, with no outward display of embitterment or exasperation. Gracie will even be the first to admit her naivete is one of her strong suits, and that’s what she believes draws others to her.
But Gracie’s life is about to be affected in a way she cannot fathom, when Hollywood actress Elizabeth Berry comes to town to research Gracie’s life for an upcoming feature length film about the tabloid affair, in which she plays Gracie. In Todd Haynes’ new picture “May December,” Oscar-winning actresses Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman play the two protagonists – Moore as Gracie, and Portman as Elizabeth. Relative newcomer Charles Melton hits a proverbial home run as Joe – who went on to marry Elizabeth and start a family with her.
Now, I’ve heard of actors researching roles by meeting with the real-life people they portray on film, television, or the stage. This task is typically handled by the director and/or the writer, but it’s certainly not unheard of for an actor to assume this task. But Elizabeth stays in Georgia for at least a week, culminating in the high school graduation of Gracie and Joe’s twin son and daughter. This is the only aspect of Samy Burch’s original screenplay that feels false – although without Elizabeth’s long stay, there would be no story at all.
Following a couple initial “get acquainted” meetings with Gracie and Joe, Elizabeth spends time with others who know Gracie well – including her local rock musician son Georgie (Cory Michael Smith), and her ex-husband Tom (D.W. Moffett), who still lives in town. Tom admits his ex-wife and much younger husband seem happy, and he doesn’t have anything bad to say about them – other than he expresses his shock when he learned of their affair. He thought their marriage was happy and solid.
As Elizabeth digs deeper, we can’t help but wonder how happy Gracie and Joe are in their own marriage. After all, if the outwardly secure Gracie jumped ship once, who’s to say she won’t do so again. Perhaps internally coming to this conclusion himself, it is Joe whose eye is wandering. Gracie’s life seems “normal” – and there’s that word again – but Joe is the one contemplating his upcoming empty nest phase (at a very young age, in his case). Joe is also having a text “relationship” with a female member of a Facebook group they belong to. And Joe seems to take more than just a passing interest in Elizabeth.
As “May December” advances, Gracie finally breaks down. When Joe comforts his wife, her issue stems from a family who had ordered several cakes and then cancelled at the last minute. Gracie is overly distraught that she spent so much time working for a cancelled order. Obviously, this is not the real reason for Gracie’s hysterical distress. But what is?
“May December” hardly hits a wrong note, and the characters are drawn so assuredly that we cannot help but wonder where Burch’s excellent screenplay is headed. Furthermore, “May December” features some of the best acting we’ve seen all year. As expected, Moore’s work is solid. But Portman instantly leaps into the Oscar race with her late-film scene of a monologue in which we see her on-screen portrayal of Gracie. Suffice to say, it’s more than mimicry. Elizabeth’s research work apparently pays off, because her interpretation of the Gracie character is spellbinding. If Portman and Moore didn’t look so physically different, we might think we were watching a monologue by Gracie instead of Elizabeth. This is Portman’s best work since 2010’s “Black Swan.”
And Melton is the real find amongst the three leads. His portrayal of Joe is the glue that holds these proceedings together. At first almost an afterthought, Joe becomes the film’s most captivating character because he’s the one we know the least about. In most similar instances, the young boy would simply have left the older woman and gone on about his life. But here, the two married one another, raised a family, and lived a seemingly “normal” life.
“May December” is not a happy film, and it won’t be to everyone’s liking. But it is Haynes’ best since 2015’s “Carol,” another great film about two women and a prohibited affair. Much as with the great Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, Haynes excels at directing stories with female protagonists.
And this brings up one final point. Whether intentional or not, film buffs and students of film history are likely to notice several outward similarities of “May December” with Bergman’s “Persona.” When Gracie applies her daily make-up routine to Elizabeth, the two women’s faces practically meld into one, just as Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullman did in “Persona.” And Portman’s closeup monologue resembles that of Andersson in Bergman’s film. Again, I can’t say the comparison is premeditated, but it certainly seems that way. And simply making the connection is high praise for “May December,” one of this year’s best achievements in filmmaking.