May December Revisits 1990s Scandal With Humor

L-R: Natalie Portman as Elizabeth Berry and Julianne Moore as Gracie Atherton-Yoo in May December. Photo credit: Francois Duhamel. Courtesy of Netflix

May December revisits a notorious scandal as an actress arrives in Georgia in order to research a role in an upcoming film.

If the film’s plot sounds familiar, that’s because it’s basically the story of Mary Kay Letourneau. The main difference is that Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore) and Joe Yoo (Charles Melton) conducted their affair at a pet shop, not a school. In any event, Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman) has hit up their Savannah, Georgia home to get to know them. Elizabeth is researching just about everything there is to know about Gracie, no matter how uncomfortable things might get. It’s not a shock that Elizabeth’s visit begins to mess with their emotions, which comes as Gracie and Joe’s twin children are graduating high school. I mean, they are revisiting a scandal from 23 years earlier. A scandal that led to both jail time and three children despite a 23-year age gap between the two of them.

The film takes place in 2015 while the scandal hit the airwaves in 1992. Is 23 years long enough before recreating the affair or is it going to wreck havoc on the family? This is one of the things that Samy Burch’s screenplay explores throughout the nearly 2-hour run time. What surprised me is just how much I laughed during my viewing! Was it the music or camera choices? Or maybe it was the Chicago audience that watched the film during the Chicago International Film Festival in October? I honestly don’t know because I definitely wasn’t in the right headspace upon viewing the film. It’s honestly a factor in why I’m timing my review to the streaming release rather than theatrical. In my opinion, the film walks a blurry line between comedy and drama. With how much I was laughing, I’m giving comedy the edge.

To be fair, there are certainly scenes in the film where there’s no doubt about the comedy angle. For instance, Elizabeth is arriving to town and Gracie is focused on the fact that they don’t have enough hot dogs. It isn’t just Julianne Moore’s performance but how the musical score is incorporated into the film. Director Todd Haynes even acknowledges the humor in the film’s press notes. Haynes acknowledged that Samy Burch’s script has “sardonic humor” but they played the film straight.

“I was like, this movie is really funny because it’s playing with very dark and complicated themes and you’re very disquieted by what’s going on. The moral ambiguities in the film keep shifting and you keep not knowing which character to align with and what to believe. So the humor is welcome as a way of interpreting this film and experiencing it.”

If there’s a big moment in the film where things start to turn, it’s the shot of Elizabeth and Gracie looking in the mirror. This is the scene where Gracie shows Elizabeth how she puts makeup on. It’s also a scene where Todd Haynes pays homage to Ingmar Bergman, amongst other scenes in the film. Of course, one can’t help but think about other films, too, such as The Graduate.

Natalie Portman is in top-notch form here and delivers one of the best performances of the year. Here, the actress is playing an actress, no doubt drawing on her many years in the business in approaching the role. I can tell you right now that Portman’s name will be on all of my nomination ballots during this awards season. Portman and Julianne Moore are both Oscar winners so you know exactly what to expect from them. The big surprise here is Charles Melton’s performance. He has been earning awards love for his performance. Most recently, the actor took home a Gotham Award with a Critics Choice Celebration of Cinema & Television Breakthrough Performance Award still to come. All in all, there’s a lot to appreciate about the acting performances on screen.

For my international readership, Netflix only has North American rights for the film. I know that Sky Cinema will be releasing the film in the UK. I’m not sure about other markets. Maybe just keep an eye out for news about the film?

DIRECTOR: Todd Haynes
CAST: Natalie Portman, Julianne Moore, Charles Melton

Netflix released May December in theaters on November 17, 2023 and will start streaming in the US and Canada on December 1. Grade: 4/5

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Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.