Movie Review: May December

Method acting goes off the rails in this sly melodrama.

I tend to get annoyed when I see films that depict journalists behaving badly, doing whatever it takes to get the story, trampling all over ethical lines. Not exactly the best representation of my profession.

So I can’t help but wonder how actors—method actors in particular—will feel watching Todd Haynes’ sly new film, May December.

Elizabeth Berry, the striving, B-list actress played with almost vibrating ambition by Natalie Portman, takes things way too far in her attempt to understand the interior life of Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore), the notorious woman she is about to depict in an independent film.

Gracie is not-so-loosely based on Mary Kay Letourneau, the 35-year-old school teacher who slept with a 13-year-old pupil, went to prison for her crimes, and later married the boy. They had two daughters together.

Haynes tweaks the story a bit—in this case, Gracie met her Joe (Charles Melton) at a pet store, where she was the manager and he worked as a stock boy. Also, they have three kids—two girls and a boy. They live in Savannah, Georgia, not Seattle. But the basic bones of the story are all there.

The action picks up when Joe is 36—the same age Gracie was when she first slept with him (and notably, since we’re in a house of mirrors here, the same age as Elizabeth). They are comfortably married, but there is something surreal about Joe being the father to such old children. He seems somehow stuck between the age of his children and the age of the fellow dads, all in their 40s and 50s. Gracie still calls him “the boy.”

So why does Gracie agree to let Elizabeth Berry essentially embed herself with her family? Vanity perhaps. A desire to get the story told correctly, as Elizabeth promises her, many times. And maybe, as we glean as the film progresses, a desire to seize control of the narrative.

So Elizabeth shows up on a nice day—the family is having a barbecue. Haynes teases at the film’s winking humor when Gracie stares despondently into the refrigerator, as Douglas Sirkin-esque piano music blares. “I don’t think we have enough hot dogs,” she mutters.

That afternoon, the Yoos gets a package in the mail and they immediately know what it is—it’s a box of shit, Gracie explains. It used to happen more often, after the scandal broke, less so as the years have gone by. Elizabeth watches in astonishment as they matter-of-factly dispose of the box and squirt each other with hand sanitizer. “Want some?” Joe asks Elizabeth politely.

Most of the guests at the barbecue regard Elizabeth with a mixture of starstruck awe and suspicion.

“Just be kind,” a friend of Gracie’s tells her.

But Elizabeth is too striving to be kind. She probes at Gracie—and Joe—and goes behind their backs, interviewing Gracie’s square ex-husband and her troubled adult son. She also gets close to Joe—too close. Lines are very much crossed.

Haynes pits the two fine actresses against each other with a kind of campy glee. (Ryan Murphy wishes). They are constantly seen in mirrors—often together. At one point, Gracie shows Elizabeth how to do “her” makeup and their faces are so close, you think they might kiss. In another scene, they are sitting at a clothing store waiting for Gracie’s daughter Mary (Elizabeth Yu) to model prom dresses and the mirrors are positioned such that they are seen in a triptych: One Elizabeth flanked by two Gracies.

That scene is also notable because it shows how passive aggressive Gracie can be. “You’re so brave to show your arms,” she says to Mary, who had been proudly showing off her bare-armed choice but promptly changes into a long-sleeved dress.

If Haynes is adept at showing the darker side of Gracie, he certainly doesn’t let Elizabeth off the hook. Her method acting practices are…unusual, to say the least. She’s constantly walking around imitating the way Gracie walks and talks and gestures. At one point, she masturbates in the stock room where Joe and Gracie first had sex. In another rather squirm-inducing (albeit hilarious) scene, she vividly describes what it’s like to film a sex scene in front of Mary’s astonished and horny high school drama class.

Gracie and Elizabeth might be the film’s main focus, but Joe is the tragic figure here.

At one point, Elizabeth is looking at screentests of potentials Joes for her movie and she sees the tapes of two 13-year-old actors: scrawny, barely pubescent, children. She rejects them. Even at 13, Joe needs to be sexier, she tells her director.

And it’s true: Young Joe was strapping—he was also mature for his age, both physically and emotionally (he had to take care of his siblings in his broken family). But he was also a child—the same age as those knock-kneed children on the audition tapes. And Elizabeth’s presence has him rethinking his life and the kind of woman he married. In the narrative both he and Gracie tell, he seduced her. But of course, that’s ridiculous. A 13-year-old can’t seduce a 36-year-old. He may’ve thought he loved her, but she manipulated him, robbed him of his childhood.

All the acting here is extraordinary, but there’s a reason why Charles Melton has been picking some early awards hardware for his role as Joe. He breaks your heart. May December is a campy melodrama about two willful women who are more alike than they care to admit. But its heart and soul is the emotionally stunted Joe, a kind of reverse Peter Pan, forced to grow up way too soon.


May December is currently on Netflix.