A "May December" love affair is a relationship between two people with a considerable age difference, and so proves to be the case with Gracie (Julianne Moore, 'Still Alice') and Joe (Charles Melton, 'Bad Boys for Life') in Todd Haynes' ('Carol') latest film, the aptly titled 'May December'. Haynes has made a bit of a name for himself by making provocative and complex films centred on femininity and sexuality - and this is no different. 'May December' presents itself as a film with a soft touch, albeit with a lens into an otherwise disturbing subject.
Loosely based on the real-life events surrounding Mary Kay Letourneau, 'May December' opens 20 years after their tabloid romance, with Gracie and Joe hosting a BBQ with all their friends and family. The aim of this gathering is to welcome into their lives Elizabeth (Natalie Portman, 'Jackie'), a famous actor who is about to play Gracie in a film, and wants to study her subject as closely as possible. Although wary, Gracie agrees in the hope that this film - and Elizabeth's portrayal - will go some way to clear her name and shed a positive light on her circumstances. What begins with a cordial invitation for an opportunity and a quest for truth morphs into an unspoken discomfort that ultimately pushes all those involved to places they neither expected nor wanted to be in.
Gracie was a 35-year-old woman who fell in love with a 13-year-old boy, raised a family after doing prison time, and is now about to see off her youngest children as they graduate and head off the college. Much like the film itself, any aspect of this that starts to feel normal is quickly away from beneath you in a startling, and sometimes darkly funny, manner. This whole situation is not normal, but Haynes goes to great lengths to tease audiences to almost believe it is, and then you realise you're drawn into a world you want no part of.
Making its debut at Cannes and recently being purchased by Netflix, 'May December' is certainly not for everyone. There is a layer of eeriness and ickiness that sits atop everything, like a dark cloud waiting to storm. With each melodramatic camera movement and black satirical moment, a small layer of the unpleasantness is peeled off until it slowly reveals its core. It's not a core that necessarily brings peace or the harmonious conclusions the characters seek, but it's a core that ultimately shapes this film as a really interesting character piece about truth, the roles we play, and above all else, desire. Haynes delves into desire in all its forms; seductive, artistic or the want for acceptance - both within the walls of a community and amongst family.
There is a layer of eeriness and ickiness that sits atop everything, like a dark cloud waiting to storm. With each melodramatic camera movement and black satirical moment, a small layer of the unpleasantness is peeled off until it slowly reveals its core.
While the premise may not seem it, 'May December' is a captivating and funny exploration of people. It's made with a touch of cheek that allows Haynes to play with these characters - and ultimately, his audience.
An actor with the ability of Portman is well-equipped to portray a professional doing research for a role, so it's no surprise that she's absolutely brilliant. Elizabeth slides her way in as she learns more about Gracie and the family, and gets progressively more comfortable as we get more uncomfortable. Portman is wholeheartedly convincing as an actor completely enveloped in her job, and likewise, Moore does an excellent job of playing a manipulator and a victim. You can always feel assured that Moore and Portman will give starring roles, but it's Melton's Joe who arguably steals the show. Elizabeth's presence in their family starts to reveal cracks and while Gracie is adamant they aren't there, Joe slowly begins to believe them and it eventuates into a role that Melton gets bang on. He's softly-spoken and reserved but utterly caring for his loved ones, and he's the one character that a modicum of sympathy can be geared towards.
There is no denying that parts of this film will make audiences uncomfortable, but filled with a sense of humour and a sense of people, 'May December' hits a lot of the right notes that get the tonal balance spot on, and a discomfort that can stay with you long after the credits roll. This is definitely one to keep an eye on.