May December movie review: Director Todd Haynes and writers Samy Burch and Alex Mechanik build their clinically cauterised drama around that experience giving us broad salvos about a hoary past
May December movie review
Film: May December
Cast: Julianne Moore, Natalie Portman,Chris Tenzis, Charles Melton
Director: Todd Hayes
Runtime: 117 mins
Imagine living your life under the glare of the tabloid headlines and continuously experiencing the repercussions of that notoriety year after year for 24 years plus? Director Todd Haynes and writers Samy Burch and Alex Mechanik build their clinically cauterised drama around that experience giving us broad salvos about a hoary past similar to what Mary Kay Letourneau, the teacher who made headlines in 1997 experienced in real life.
We get to know about the notoriety through tabloid headlines. Gracie (Julianne Moore) a 36-year-old schoolteacher was jailed for seducing her 7th-grade student, 13-year-old Joe(Charles Melton as the adult Joe) in the stock room of a local pet store. When in prison Gracie bore their first child. That opening sets the tone for the scandal and community uproar that followed. The ongoing impact of the scandal is underscored by the presence of periodic postal deliveries of excrement to Gracie.
The narrative picks up 24 years later as we now see that Gracie Yoo and Joe are a regular married couple, and their second and third children, twins Mary (Elizabeth Yu) and Charlie (Gabriel Chung), are graduating high school and preparing to go off to college. Joe, is now the same age as Elizabeth, just like the kids from Gracie's first marriage. But reminders of those bygone days are not far away. Elizabeth (Natalie Portman) an actress, arrives at their Savannah home to research her role as Gracie in an upcoming indie film about the scandal and Gracie and Joe deem it an appropriate time to let the outside world into their lives.
May December has a darkly comic element to it too. Despite the seriousness of its examination of the Gracie/Joe dynamic, we see subtle hints parried forth questioning their desire to stay married as a way of making what they did kosher in the eyes of those who still see them in a scandalous light. Elizabeth’s entry into their lives, splits that theory wide. Her probing intrusion regarding the scandal from their past opens up a can of worms that could well change the course of their lives.
Haynes' narrative, deprived of strong emotion, never seems to find a strong footing to explore in depth. Even though the narrative examines different aspects of their lives both yesterday and today, we never get to see any resolution. Is there one? Gracie reiterates to Joe that he was the one to seduce her, but that claim doesn’t hold water because she was the mature adult then and an under-aged Joe was just entering his teens. Gracie and Joe’s recollections of how things started are not in sync. We never get to learn of the actress’s real motivations in conducting this intense in-depth study of her character. But Elizabeth’s probing does puncture doubts about the nature of the marriage and the notion of its stability.
Leaving a lot to interpretation may not be a grand idea for a drama of this kind. Haynes' method of unraveling the story is distinctive but not without blemish. Much of what we discuss here is hinted at so subtly that it all seems rather enigmatic. Underplaying under such circumstances is never fulfilling for the audience. Though the theme has enough juicy elements to whet the appetite, it’s all presented in such starkly unemotional fashion that you feel distant from what is happening on screen. The narrative never grips you in any fashion. Haynes’ approach may get some people to think - to a certain extent, but it could also put off a horde of viewers expecting some fulfillment from this very dry experience. Some obvious symbolism appears trite and inconsistent tonal changes don’t help either. The story doesn’t appear to be heading anywhere other than to exist as a document of what happened a couple of decades after the incident.
It’s further perplexing that a fairly intriguing story that involves a sexual offense hints at the sinister but doesn’t go beyond that. Despite strong involved performances from the leads, the movie fails to be memorable. The uneventful, emotionally threadbare scripting and lack of experiential drama make this a rather tedious exercise.