May December: Contemplative, Sly & Deeply Unsettling

5 February 2024 / by Joey Vong
May December: Contemplative, Sly & Deeply Unsettling
A subdued but fascinating portrait of moral grey areas, scandal, stunted growth and emotional turmoil.

Released in late 2023 and directed by Todd Haynes, May December is a subdued but fascinating portrait of moral grey areas, scandal, stunted growth and emotional turmoil.  


Set in sun-dripped and picturesque Savannah, Georgia and taking place throughout a couple of weeks, May December follows a TV actress named Elizabeth Berry, portrayed by Natalie Portman, as she prepares to play the role of Gracie (Julianne Moore) in an upcoming show that explores the inception of her relationship with her husband Joe (Charles Melton). Dedicated to her craft with a notebook in hand and endless questions, Elizabeth watches and examines Gracie and Joe’s relationship with curious eyes and an eagerness to understand, captivate and depict the situation. What’s the catch? Gracie and Joe had an “affair” when she was 36 and he was 13 when they worked in a pet shop together in the 1990s. Charged with statutory rape and placed behind bars, Gracie had Joe’s baby behind bars. In the midst of all of this, the couple also became tabloid headlines. Fast forward 20 years later, the couple has 3 children, 2 of which who are just about to graduate high school and have stayed together for over two decades. The longer that Elizabeth stays, the more evident it becomes that things are not at all as settled as Gracie in particular would like people to believe. As Elizabeth continues to hold a mirror to Gracie and Joe’s relationship, things begin to unfold. 


May December is an unsuspecting film that stays with you and leaves you pondering for days on end. The film initially sparked my interest and many others due to the obscure and taboo subject matter, but I was pleasantly surprised and almost taken aback by the way that they decided to approach the story. With numerous layers and components working on top of each other, while the film is quiet and simple on the surface, it gives the audience much to sit with as it masterfully plays with emotion and captivates the audience through its highly intentional artistic choices. There is so much to adore about this movie, so I’ll break it down into some critical points. 


One of the most central aspects that makes this film so poignant, unsettling and striking is the tone and storytelling devices that are used. First and foremost, using Elizabeth and her position as a mid-tiered actress to explore Gracie and Joe’s relationship is one that allows the audience to gain a very nuanced and unique perspective on their story. To show this world through the eyes of Elizabeth and the idea of performance, we can see Joe and Gracie move like they have something to prove to the world. 


As an opportunistic and boundary-denying character, Elizabeth pushes the bounds of ethics and comfortability. Through Elizabeth, we can gain a deep insight into how the couple wants to be perceived versus the reality in which they live. She gets deep into their business, both as individuals and as a couple and helps to illuminate the gritty details that are shared in her presence and details that slip when she’s not around. As the audience, to have Elizabeth as a mechanism to look at and examine the start of their relationship through this retrospective lens is so clever as we can see both the effects that it had on their livelihood and the repercussions that unfold as they continue to navigate their lives. Her invasive and obsessive personality is a key component of why this works so well. 


Another standout component of the movie is also how meticulously crafted the tone is. From the set design, to the colouring, cinematography and music, it is evident that the production took careful and deliberate care with each of these elements. This story could have been told in so many different ways, but the contemplative and restricted choices the filmmakers ultimately went with serve the story so well. Through these mechanisms, there is an emptiness and hollowness that engulfs Gracie and Joe’s world as everything appears to be dulled and muted. The music, in contrast, is unnerving and sharp to accompany. The vision of the movie feels wholly realized and knows exactly how to unsettle, intrigue, and keep audiences roped in. 


Of course, and perhaps, most importantly, the actors breathe life into this story. The screenplay in itself is quite spare, controlled and shows a level of constraint that is critical to the perception of the film. There is a distance and detachment achieved through the dialogue and what the screenwriters allow the viewer to take from the lines. Never offering too much, May December urges the viewer to come in close and requires them to truly study and engage with what they are watching. The film features subtle but powerful performances across the board. It goes without saying that Natalie Portman as Elizabeth and Julianne Moore as Gracie are nothing less than spectacular. Both well-seasoned actors and near masters of their craft, they bring their respective A games. Moore’s Gracie is calculated and cunning. Portman’s Elizabeth is manipulative but honest. Near the end of the film, Portman delivers a chilling monologue that leaves a mark. The newbie of the three, Charles Melton as Joe is an absolute feat. His lines are delivered with such melancholy, uncertainty, and burden. His body language reads as sheltered and caved in. While Joe is in his early 30s, he moves in the world like a young teenager. During their press tour, Melton and Haynes talked passionately in interviews about how important Joe’s physicality was to his role. As the breakout star of this movie, it’s a pleasure to see Melton transform with such nuance. To watch the three leads together is magnificent. 


May December is a well-crafted film that explores the themes of manipulation, power and performance through a clever and insightful lens. Even weeks after watching it, I can safely say it’s given me a lot to think about as the unsettling feelings continue to linger.


Make sure to catch May December streaming on Netflix now. You won’t regret it.