May December, which opened the 61st annual New York Film Festival, earns 3 stars (out of 4) from Us Weekly movie critic Mara Reinstein.
On the extremely soggy opening night of the 61st New York Film Festival, the artistic director took the stage at Lincoln Center and introduced May December with a declaration: This selection was the “funniest film” to ever kick off the famed event.
He wasn’t necessarily wrong — previous opening night selections, after all, include Gone Girl, Captain Phillips and The Irishman. But May December is no mainstream comedy with a fun pop soundtrack and merchandise tie-ins. A riveting character study featuring Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman in showcasing performances, it explores complicated relationships using an off-kilter energy. And while laughs are sprinkled throughout, its sense of humor is nefarious to the core.
Portman plays Elizabeth Berry, a popular Juilliard-trained actress who stars on a TV series called Norah’s Ark and is now researching a role for an independent film. She arrives in Savannah, Georgia, to meet and shadow her subject, Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Moore). Gracie is a mild-mannered baker residing in a nice house with her noticeably younger husband, Joe (Riverdale’s Charles Melton), and their soon-to-be-graduating twins. We care because she’s also a ’90s tabloid fixture once imprisoned for statutory rape after embarking on a sexual relationship with Joe when he was just 13 and working at her pet store.
To answer the obvious question, director Todd Haynes (Carol) has said the character is indeed based on notorious teacher Mary Kay Letourneau. She and her student, Vili Fualaau, had kids as well and wed (and separated) before Letourneau’s 2020 death. In May December, Gracie and Joe are seemingly content with their domesticity. Aside from a few insidious examples of mail harassment, they’re functional members of their Southern community. Gracie’s first husband and older son even live close by.
Leave it to Elizabeth’s Hollywood presence to disrupt the status quo. Though Gracie is wary of the whole endeavor, Elizabeth convinces them in her deceptively soft-spoken way that she will let the saga be told appropriately and accurately. Because Elizabeth is so method about the endeavor, we’re led to believe this means she will eschew the tawdrier aspects in favor of portraying the couple’s sensitive love story.
But the actress, whose email inbox consists of messages with subject lines like “Vanity Fair Questions,” can’t help herself. She’s entranced by the couple’s peculiar dynamic, in which the emotionally fraught Gracie is prone to crying fits and the now 36-year-old Joe exudes a childlike innocence. Sure, Elizabeth takes notes on Gracie’s makeup routine and mimics her body language as an obligatory responsibility. She also asks to see the pet store stock room in which the couple first hooked up and simulates her own private romp.
For all its tension, May December isn’t here for the melodramatic twists. Elizabeth is not going to have a change of heart and go back to L.A., just like Gracie will not suddenly regret all her life choices and pull the plug on the whole arrangement. (Money must be involved, but it’s never outright stated.)
The film does excel as it swings in many tonal directions without falling. At times, a thriller seems to be mounting — Gracie goes hunting with a shotgun, often looks at Elizabeth with disdain and, hello, the woman did serve time in jail. During other moments, the film is a straightforward message drama about a family trying to persevere in the aftermath of a scandal. There’s compassion to spare, especially for Melton’s Joe. When he smokes pot for the first time, the fallout is oddly heartbreaking. Melton, so vulnerable in his scenes, more than holds his own with the two Oscar winners.
Not surprisingly, the humor is derived from its pitch-black take on Hollywood celebrity. And frankly, the results are so effective that it could have afforded a bit more skewering on that front. Elizabeth is all too aware of her manipulative superpowers: In an amusing set piece, she visits the local high school to do a Q&A and launches into a monologue about filming sex scenes — both to get a rise out of a male student and perhaps to try her hand at seducing this younger guy. She displays hilarious faux sincerity when a fan compliments her show. Though she ultimately admits that she’s outstayed her welcome, she still attends the twins’ graduation ceremony. But Gracie gets the last word.
So who is exploiting whom? To its credit, May December never provides a clear-cut solution. The two women often look at each other in a mirror, seeing themselves reflected in each other’s eyes. It’s up to the audience to figure out what (and who) is for real. Just beware of those sharp edges.
May December opens in select theaters November 17 and will be on Netflix December 1.