May December review – a frothy psychodrama with a lurid bite

Movie

Todd Haynes’ deliciously dark melodrama sees Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman go head-to-head as a housewife and the woman tasked with playing her in a film.

Adding melodrama to the seemingly endless list of genres he can turn his hand to, Todd Haynes creates a thorny, completely compelling feature from Samy Burch’s acerbic script in May December, as an actress tries to get under the skin of the woman she’s scheduled to play in an upcoming biopic. Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman) is best known for her work on Norah’s Arc – a television show in which she plays a veterinarian. Although she’s “so lucky to have the show”, she yearns for the legitimacy of a meaty film role and thinks it might exist in the indie film she’s starring in which tells the story of Joe and Gracie Atherton-Yoo.

The couple live in the suburbs of Savannah Georgia with their eighteen-year-old twins Mary and Charlie, who are about to fly the nest for college – by all rights they seem like a sweet couple, but the story of their relationship is revealed to be a contentious one, when Gracie (Julianne Moore) is unfazed by strangers leaving packages of dog poo on their doorstep. It turns out Gracie began an affair with Joe (Charles Melton) when he was 13-years-old, becoming pregnant with his child and serving time in prison. Some two decades later they live a quiet life and seem determined to convince Elizabeth that they’re just like any other happy suburban family.

The devil’s in the details though, and as Elizabeth learns more about the Atherton-Yoos from both the family and those that know them, she begins to notice ripples in the supposedly still water. Burch’s script is deliciously pitched, sly and wry with an undercurrent of melancholy, as Elizabeth’s presence also forces Joe to confront beliefs he has held about his life for over 20 years.

It’s hard to believe this is Burch’s first produced feature screenplay given the sharpness of her dialogue – she’s unequivocally now one to watch – while Charles Melton, hitherto best known for his roles in CW drama Riverdale and teen weepie All the Bright Places – is a revelation as the mild-mannered, gentle Joe, who holds his own against the star power of Portman and Moore with ease. Amid the bad actors in his life, one hopes sweet Joe – whose entire life has been shaped by something he was coerced into at 13 – might emerge like the monarch butterflies he lovingly tends to, and be able to fly far away.

Meanwhile, Moore is a softly-spoken, faux-naive housewife who dedicates herself to baking cakes and wears a selection of prairie dresses, never quite revealing if she’s deluded or a master manipulator. Portman keeps pace as the self-absorbed Elizabeth, who is awful in a different way, remarking in one darkly amusing aside about the teenagers reading for the role opposite her, “They’re cute, but they’re not sexy enough”.

This is by far Haynes’ funniest film to date, with shades of Almodóvar in its dramatic zooms and heightened domestic tension. The icing on the cake is Marcelo Zavros’s score, adapted from Michel Legrand’s gorgeous work on Joseph Losey’s The Go-Between, which adds a sense of drama and mystery to every frame. Yet the soap opera shades don’t overshadow the fact there’s genuine emotion and tenderness here too. Haynes takes the lives of these characters seriously, even though it’s clear that the relationship between Gracie and Joe is the product of an insidious process of emotional and sexual grooming. When the inevitable confrontations come about the reality of Gracie’s actions, she will do anything to deflect blame.

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Published 14 Nov 2023

Tags: Julianne Moore Natalie Portman Todd Haynes

Anticipation.

Stellar cast, but a ripped-from-the-tabloids plot gives pause for thought.

Enjoyment.

A frothy psychodrama with a lurid bite, with a magnificent turn from Charles Melton.

In Retrospect.

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