Feature movie review: MAY DECEMBER | Film Reviews | Salt Lake City Weekly

Feature movie review: MAY DECEMBER 

Exploring what pop-culture versions of true stories can't know, or don't even try to know

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Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore in May December - NETFLIX
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  • Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore in May December
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Early in May December, Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore) and her husband Joe (Charles Melton) are preparing for that most quintessential of American suburban activities: hosting a backyard barbecue. That event is doubling as the place where Gracie is set to meet Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman), the actress doing research for playing Gracie in a movie based on the tabloid-fodder case 20 years earlier where then-30-something-year-old Gracie had an affair with then-13-year-old Joe, which heightens the stress. So there's an understandable tension to a scene in which director Todd Haynes slowly zooms in on Gracie opening her refrigerator, staring inside with an indecipherable expression as a borrowed Michel Legrand score intones ominously ... and she says, "I don't think we have enough hot dogs."

It's a great deadpan joke, but as May December unfolds, it also feels like a perfect encapsulation of what screenwriter Samy Burch is up to. Using the bones of the infamous 1990s Mary Kay Letourneau case as inspiration, May December pokes at both the mundanity and the unknowability behind tales that seem impossibly strange. And it's absolutely savage at examining the way we so often tell these stories in popular culture, while pretending at caring about their complexity.

That latter notion emerges through the character of Elizabeth, played by Portman as a wonderfully unique kind of villain. Naturally, she doesn't think of herself that way; Elizabeth might actually be convinced that she's going to crack open Gracie's psyche and find a complex, sympathetic human being beneath the sensational headlines. But she mostly seems kind of desperate for a part that will allow her to be taken seriously, or more seriously than the TV series for which she is best-known, playing a veterinarian on the hilariously-named Nora's Ark. She dutifully interviews various other people—Gracie's ex-husband, her defense attorney—but is clearly most obsessed with the lurid aspects of the case, in the same way that Joe and Gracie's neighbor at the barbecue knows Elizabeth mostly from Googling her nude scenes. Elizabeth may mouth platitudes to Gracie about her goal being to find "truth," but her behavior makes that claim feel ... let's say disingenuous.

Furthermore, it's obvious that there's no way she has access to all the truth she needs to really understand either Gracie or Joe. Part of the brilliance of Burch's screenplay is that it's only partially offered from Elizabeth's point of view, with plenty of scenes taking place outside of the actor's knowledge. We see Gracie's emotional fragility as she bursts into heaving sobs over seemingly minor issues like Joe coming to bed smelling of smoke from the grill; we see Joe engaged in a text flirtation with a fellow monarch butterfly enthusiast (the chrysalis metaphor being one of the movie's clunkier components); we see Joe having a conversation with their son Charlie (Gabriel Chung) in which Joe wrestles with how much the legacy of the affair might have damaged the kids. For every moment of insight that Elizabeth is allowed—like seeing Gracie passive-aggressively body-shame Charlie's twin sister Mary (Elizabeth Yu)—there are a dozen moments she can never see, and some information she discovers that may or may not be reliable.

What emerges is something that becomes an interesting sort of companion piece to two other Todd Haynes features—Far from Heaven and Carol—which looked beyond the surface placidity of suburban marriages to probe the psychological realities hidden from the rest of the world. The variation that May December serves up is one where the suburban marriage in question is presumed, based on its history, not to be placid, but still can't possibly be completely understood by anyone on the outside. There are the stories Gracie and Joe tell to themselves about the beginnings of their relationship, the stories others tell about them, and then there's the ordinary stuff that makes up most of all lives.

When we ultimately see Elizabeth on the set of the movie she's making, it's presenting a version of Gracie seducing Joe while literally fondling a snake, like Eve in the garden provoking original sin. May December knows that if there's a "truth" about Gracie, it's somewhere between that overt melodrama and the anxieties of a housewife worried about how many hot dogs there will be at the barbecue.

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Scott Renshaw

Scott Renshaw

Bio:
Scott Renshaw has been a City Weekly staff member since 1999, including assuming the role of primary film critic in 2001 and Arts & Entertainment Editor in 2003. Scott has covered the Sundance Film Festival for 25 years, and provided coverage of local arts including theater, pop-culture conventions, comedy, literature,... more

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