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The Bates Student

The Voice of Bates College Since 1873

The Bates Student

The Voice of Bates College Since 1873

The Bates Student

“May December”: A Moral Mystery Too Seductive To Look Away From

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Netflix’s new film, “May December,” is not for the faint of heart. The plot follows Elizabeth Berry, an actress (Natalie Portman) who travels to Savannah, Georgia to research the life of a polarizing woman named Gracie (Julianne Moore) because she is slated to play in a film depicting Gracie’s scandalous tabloid love story with her husband. 20 years earlier, Gracie was married with several children when she had an affair with a thirteen-year-old boy named Joe. During her time in prison, Gracie gave birth to Joe’s child and eventually married him upon her release. The present-day is set in 2015, and Joe and Gracie have three children, one of whom is in college and two of whom are graduating high school in a few weeks. This leaves conflict brewing as Joe and Gracie come to terms with their future as empty nesters.

The plot is inspired loosely by the case of Mary Kay Letourneau, an elementary school teacher who had an affair with her sixth-grade student and, after being convicted of two counts of second-degree child rape, married her victim a year after her release. 

Director Todd Haynes, who previously directed the ultimate queer Christmas movie, “Carol” (2015), asserts himself in the Oscar Best Picture contender race with “May December.” He deftly oscillates between high camp–Gracie and Elizabeth have a bizarrely fascinating homoerotic tension–and disturbing psychological drama. It makes for a triumphant final product. 

“May December” might be the most well-acted film of the year. The film boasts a perfect trifecta of performances in leads Portman, Moore, and newcomer Charles Melton. Melton, whose filmography has consisted of cheesy roles in “Riverdale,” “American Horror Stories,” and the rom-com “The Sun Is Also a Star,” derails from his hunk/boy-next-door type-cast to deliver a devastating performance as Gracie’s husband, Joe. He doesn’t just hold his own alongside two Oscar winners. He is a shoo-in for Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars.

His restrained performance, filled with slumped shoulders, laconic delivery, and gentle hesitancy in his movements amalgamate into a simultaneously subtle yet full-body portrayal of an emotionally stunted man reckoning with his victimhood. 

Moore, who has a long history of collaborations with Haynes–“Safe” (1995), “Far From Heaven” (2002), “I’m Not There” (2007), and “Wonderstruck” (2017)–also shines as Gracie. It is a difficult feat to perform as a character the audience is never quite meant to fully understand. Haynes certainly had faith in his 5-time Oscar-nominated actress, and the result paid off. 

The gist of the film is a moral mystery, and actress Elizabeth is our guide through the gray area as she becomes increasingly obsessed with finding the truth of Gracie’s psyche. How can she raise a family with the man she victimized as a child? How can she possibly live in a state of denial?

Gracie, however, refuses to unveil herself. Yet, despite the ambiguity, her acting choices are as revelatory as they are impressive: a lisping voice that assertively croaks in front of Elizabeth and pathetically whimpers behind the scenes in the bedroom with Joe. She might bark orders at Joe in the kitchen and publicly body-shame her daughters at a clothing store with graceful, elegant posture, but Haynes gifts us with a multi-faceted woman we so strongly hate but so desperately desire to understand. Her character might appear tonally inconsistent, but that is the point: this is a histrionic woman with an ambiguous psychological explanation. 

Ironically, Gracie is a nickname for Grace, and our villain (if that’s what you can call her?) cannot give Elizabeth nor the audience the grace of the truth. Although this is frustrating as a viewer, it extends to something deeper about our culture’s thirst for taboo. Portman’s Elizabeth is the soundboard for our obsession with perversity, unlocking any ties she has to social norms in her twisted dive to embody Gracie.

“May December” is a darkly unsettling watch, hooking you with its sensationalism of tabloids and then fully taking hold of you with subversion of our insatiable desire for sensationalist news. And Todd Haynes deliberately keeps the plot open-ended–we do not deserve the full story of Gracie and Joe. This film is a juggling act of the inner truth of Gracie’s psyche to which we are not granted access. What does this say about us as viewers?

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About the Contributor
Ana Fowler, Managing Arts & Leisure Editor
Ana is a senior from Westfield, NJ double-majoring in English and Politics. In her free time, Ana enjoys singing with her a cappella group, photosynthesizing in the quad or at the beach, kicking the soccer ball around with buddies, and seeing live music. Previously, Ana served as a Contributing Writer for The Student.

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    ColinDec 31, 2023 at 4:53 PM

    Great review for a great movie!

    Reply