May December Julianne Moore as Gracie Natalie Portman as Elizabeth Berry via Netflix

‘May December’s Scandal-Centric Drama Is Filled With Gut-Wrenching Performances

4/5 pineapple upside down cakes.

More than 20 years after director Todd Haynes and Julianne Moore joined forces for the introspective, highly stylized Far From Heaven, they’ve reunited once more to push the boundaries of black comedy and explore the harrowing everyday ripples of a controversial real-life romance in May December.

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Spearheaded by a trio of visceral, mesmerizing performances from Natalie Portman, Julianne Moore, and Charles Melton, May December is a paradoxically heartbreaking exploration of trauma wrapped up in a sharp wit and a bizarre, often disorienting (but never unwelcome) sense of humor.

Based loosely on the true story of Mary Kay Letourneau, May December follows C-list television actress Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman), a seductive wannabe-serious actress who begins shadowing homemaker Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Moore) and her markedly younger, astonishingly handsome husband Joe (Melton) as she prepares to play Gracie in a movie about the couples’ controversial marriage.

Over the course of her time with the Atherton-Yoos, Elizabeth (and the audience) slowly discovers the extent to which Gracie and Joe live in active denial about their own lives as she works to find the most compelling angle for her performance—inadvertently placing herself between husband and wife along the way.

Admittedly, the premise of May December doesn’t particularly sound like fodder for a side-splitting comedy. The film (and Moore’s performance, especially) take heavy inspiration from Letourneau’s story: though the teacher/student relationship is dropped in favor of a story about how Gracie met a then-12-year-old Joe when they were working at a pet shop, the nature of their relationship remains exactly the same.

But even with subject matter as stomach-churning as a grown woman’s pregnancy by a child, Haynes’ approach to tone (though unorthodox) feels like the truest realization of how to tell this story: brutally honest and raw, but with an ever-present undercurrent of the bizarre.

With sudden, sweepingly dramatic music queues and drastic zooms over mundane, everyday revelations like Gracie’s realization that she didn’t buy enough hot dogs at the store, May December often feels like a tongue-in-cheek parody of a daytime soap in which Elizabeth might have starred. The film boasts a borderline Lynchian sense of humor, but the stylistic soap trappings aren’t just to provide comedic refuge for the audience, instead functioning as a way to emulate the sensationalized nature of Joe and Gracie’s relationship in the tabloids.

But while May December’s stylistic and comedic sensibilities are a remarkable testament to Haynes’ deftness and understanding of tone as a director, the real meat of the film comes in the achingly personal moments of tragedy that Elizabeth uncovers as she slowly worms her way into Gracie and Joe’s life. Gracie has built herself the perfect paradise to hide away from any self-examination or introspection: She insists to Elizabeth that she’s naive, idealistic, and young at heart—a soft-spoken homemaker and a doting wife and mother whose greatest concerns are the fate of her pineapple upside down cake business.

Their entire idyllic east-core life is a stasis bubble, a meticulous facade of normalcy that everyone in the surrounding community has agreed to uphold, for fear that Gracie will otherwise crack and crumble under the pressure—and crack she does. Though initially more than happy to welcome an actress into her home, Gracie quickly turns on Elizabeth once her inquisitive research begins to unearth comfortable truths and force Gracie to reconsider how she’s coped with her past, and how that coping (or lack thereof) has similarly stunted Joe’s mental maturity.

As Gracie, Moore walks the perfect, blurry line between naive innocence and shrewd, vitriolic defensiveness—a deeply unhealthy and traumatized woman who’s so throughly convinced herself she did nothing wrong that it’s bled into the mindset of those around her. With her unassuming, breathy, lisped speech (an affectation borrowed from Letourneau), she’s able to masquerade an intense awareness of ego as concern for her family—but the ever-present intensity behind Moore’s eyes is a constant reminder that Gracie (though very broken) wields emotional intelligence like a tool to manipulate those closest to her.

The primary victim of Gracie’s ping-ponging between angelic homemaker and ferociously defensive wife is Charles Melton’s Joe, the 12-year-old with whom Gracie began a sexual relationship, eventually resulting in a decades-long marriage and three kids. Though most audiences will know Melton from his stint on Riverdale, his performance here is nothing short of revelatory: deeply heartbreaking, earnest, and innocent.

While Gracie herself is dealing with her own manner of mental age regression, it’s Joe who has spent his entire adult life never having properly reckoned with the trauma he endured as a child and continued to endure every day by staying with Gracie. On the exterior, he’s a doting father and an easygoing husband, but as with Gracie, Elizabeth’s arrival prompts introspection that quickly sends Joe spiraling, forcing him to finally acknowledge the extent to which his youth was ripped from him.

With his hulking physicality and boyish good looks, Melton oozes the kind of easy charm of someone who doesn’t realize quite how handsome they are—an endearing trait that takes on a more tragic light when considering Joe was forced to grow up before he had an adult body to match. Though a grown man whose maturity was stunted as a child could easily veer in to the realm of cartoonish, there’s a sweetness and sincerity that Melton gives Joe that only serves to make the character entirely more tragic.

He’s had his whole life taken away from him, but is unaware of it, instead having been taught by Gracie to live the lie that they were young and in love, and that the world was working against them. As Elizabeth’s presence continues to break walls down, Melton gets a chance to truly shine while Joe struggles to put on a strong front for his children while coming to the real-time realization that they’re experiencing a life he never got to live. His eventual breakdown as Joe mourns his own youth is as powerful as it is sickening—Melton’s performance takes no prisoners.

Then, of course, there’s the Elizabeth Berry of it all—Portman’s instigating actress is the lynchpin of the entire film, desperately in over her head and (at first) entirely unaware as to the extent of the emotional minefield she’s just walked into. But while the character herself may be sorely lacking in the self-awareness to recognize how much havoc she’s wreaking in the Athertons’ lives, Portman’s performance is masterful.

It’s fascinating to watch Elizabeth watch Gracie over the course of the film, slowly affecting her voice, her mannerisms, her makeup routine, even her clothes, until it’s time to put her research into practice. Elizabeth isn’t as traditionally meaty of a character as Gracie or Joe, but Portman finds a foothold in the gradual transformation from studying Gracie to being Gracie when the cameras roll—an extremely meta dive into the mindset of an actress who treats her work with near religious reverence.

Rounded out by a flawless ensemble cast spearheaded by Cory Michael Smith and stuffed full of career-best performances (the crown jewel of which is Melton’s breakout turn as Joe), Todd Haynes’ May December is a master stroke that combines razor sharp comedic sensibilities with devastating introspective revelations to deliver a masterclass in character examinations.

(featured image: Netflix)

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Lauren Coates
Lauren Coates (she/her)is a freelance film/tv critic and entertainment journalist, who has been working in digital media since 2019. Besides writing at The Mary Sue, her other bylines include Nerdist, Paste, RogerEbert, and The Playlist. In addition to all things sci-fi and horror, she has particular interest in queer and female-led stories. When she's not writing, she's exploring Chicago, binge-watching Star Trek, or planning her next trip to the Disney parks. You can follow her on twitter @laurenjcoates