Chicago International Film Festival 2023: May December – Studying Character

Todd Haynes returns with May December, bringing with him a couple of great performances from Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore, as well as showcasing a big role for Riverdale (2017-Present) alum Charles Melton. The story is an inherently compelling one, following a TV actress trying to make a big jump to movies with a biographical role playing a woman who gained notoriety in the early-mid 90s for sleeping with and eventually starting a family with a 7th grade boy. Elizabeth (Portman) arrives at their Georgian beach house looking to spend time with the family and, more specifically, study Gracie (Moore). Things have evolved in the twenty years since the beginning of Gracie’s relationship with Joe (Melton). The film appears to be set in 2015, placing Gracie in her late 50s and Joe now in his mid 30s. Elizabeth learns quickly that there is much to uncover under the surface with this family, Gracie, Joe, their children, and estranged members from her previous marriage. As she spends more time with them and learns more about their troubled history, she faces complex emotions as she becomes more troubled by the nature of Gracie’s life and affairs, but also clearly more compelled.

May December. Dir. Todd Haynes.

As the movie sets off and we see the dynamic between Moore and Portman’s characters build, it’s hard not to relate their dynamic back to real life in a meta-self-reflective way. Julianne Moore has been here before in a Todd Haynes movie, playing out the delicate balance needed for roles about challenging mental health issues. Entering Natalie Portman into Haynes’ dark vision of the world feels just right, and as we see Elizabeth studying Gracie, we get the sense Portman is studying Moore, too. This is the driving force of the movie, while simultaneously you have the internal conflict Joe is revealed to be going through, brought about by the presence of a new young woman into his life. On the surface he is a fully functioning adult man who has raised very successful teenage kids. However, we learn he is clearly repressed, and in many ways has not matured from the 7th-grade boy he was 20+ years ago. The slow reveal of his character throughout the film may actually be its biggest strength, and it’s a wonderful coming-out party for Melton. It’s a big leap for him to go from YA television stud to starring in a Todd Haynes film, but he really sells the hard shell of confidence masking the broken interior of this 36 year old man-child, in every sense of the word.

May December. Dir. Todd Haynes.

The movie is a darkly funny drama, as you might expect from Haynes. It should play well enough on Netflix, despite clearly benefitting from a theatrical audience. It may not have the same overwhelming acclaim as Carol (2016), as it is a much darker story and goes out on more of a troubling and thought-provoking note. The film doesn’t seek to make any resounding conclusions about its characters and the lives they live. These are all people with complex interiors who have experienced trauma in some way, and they’re all doing their best. While Portman’s character is the lens by which the audience views them, we can see that she is going through something of a crisis of her own. The complexity of these characters draws us in and makes this a narrative worth devouring. Still, by movie’s end, with the lack of any sort of conclusions being made, it does feel as though perhaps there is something missing, something left to explore. Perhaps that is the point; we are who we are and we will continue to grow. There is no finality to the study of character. We’re just checking in.


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