Starring: Natalie Portman, Julianne Moore, Charles Melton, and Cory Michael Smith
Director: Todd Haynes
May December is an uncomfortable and pulpy melodrama that embraces its absurdity in a very unique manner, which in doing so, somehow makes the film work flawlessly. Todd Haynes continues to prove that he’s a hell of a director, garnering stellar performances from Natalie Portman, Julianne Moore, and Charles Melton (who, surprisingly, is the true stand out of the film). While I do wish we dove even deeper into these characters' psyche to get a better understanding of the overall picture we’re presented with, I must admit… These interpretations are memorable as is.
It'll be a while before I finish processing the brilliance of May December. I didn't love the moments that veered into TV-movie campiness, but I understood the attempt to show how we tend to infantilize tabloid events. What makes the film so fascinating is Samy Burch's screenplay, which analyzes how ego and trauma can follow us into our lives in ugly ways. Natalie Portman’s and Julianne Moore’s performances are obviously fantastic, but Charles Melton's devastating turn is my personal standout. May December is a stomach-turning knockout that I'm so happy exists.
There is a pretty awesome balance in May December where director Todd Haynes and composer Marcelo Zarvos go hard on the soap-operatic intensity without any of the actors going down that melodramatic rabbit hole. It creates the tension needed for the film’s awkward subject matter, and an avenue to allow such a wickedly devilish performance from Natalie Portman. Haynes’ ability to slyly hitch her cunning to Charles Melton’s and Julianne Moore’s polarized performances while combining that dynamic with a taut script and Zarvos’ over-the-top score makes May December a grippingly unique thriller.
May December is an unsettling, challenging, yet irresistibly engaging film. Director Todd Haynes masterfully channels the overwrought emotion and artifice of 1950s melodrama, exploring common themes of women grappling with notions of taboo desire and social expectations. The film keeps the audience constantly off-balance with its sudden tonal shifts and dramatic orchestral score, resulting in a darkly comedic and perfectly absurd effect. The central performances by Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore are deeply layered and disconcerting, forcing the audience to constantly question their intentions and moral character. This film will stick with you for a while.
While I admire the performances of all three leads on an artistic level, they simply aren’t good enough to make May December something worth recommending. For the most part, this is just a boring movie, plain and simple, coupled with the campiness and melodrama that make Lifetime Movies a punchline. It might have worked better had it picked a lane - either being a full-on homage or satire of made-for-tv movies, OR a deep dive into the aftermath of the Mary Kay Letourneau case (on which the movie is loosely based); however, in trying to come at it from both angles, it undermines both approaches.
This film was reviewed by Paige as part of Bitesize Breakdown's coverage of the 2023 New York Film Festival.