May December: great actors go for the cringe

Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman in May December

May December, from director Todd Haynes, tells a creepy, cringey story about an actress who goes to visit a Mary Kay Letourneau-like woman in order to play her in a movie.

May December stars Julianne Moore as Gracie, a woman who had sex with 13 year old Joe (played beautifully by Charles Melton as an adult). She went to prison for it and had his baby in prison. When she got out, the two married and had two more children. They claimed to be in love, to have been in love all those years ago, and denied any wrongdoing.

Charles Melton in May December

When the story begins Gracie and Joe are organizing a barbecue for their twins, Charlie (Gabriel Chung) and Mary (Elizabeth Yu), who are about to graduate from high school. Joe is now 36, the age Gracie was when she first seduced him. Or did he seduce her? They can’t agree on this point.

Joe is 36, but stuck in a sort of adolescent limbo. He didn’t get to grow through adolescence as a should have. But Gracie, the supposed adult in the relationship, is often more childish than Joe.

Gracie and Joe have agreed to let their story be told in a movie. Elizabeth (Natalie Portman) will play Gracie. Elizabeth is invited to the party and to spend a week with the family in order to learn more about them and get to know her role as Gracie.

Natalie Portman in May December

Elizabeth spends her week learning to become Gracie. Her mannerisms, her speech patterns, her hair and makeup styles, her clothing. Elizabeth practices imitating all of it. She studies Gracie like a specimen under a microscope, the way Joe studies his beloved monarch butterflies. Her identity disappears and Gracie’s emerges.

Elizabeth talks to many people in the small town where the family lives. When Gracie had her “affair” with the teen she was married to Tom (D.W. Moffett). Elizabeth spoke to him. Tom and Gracie’s son Georgie (Cory Michael Smith) was also willing to talk to her. Others such as teachers, the pet shop owner where the “affair” occurred, also talked.

Elizabeth’s presence in the town and all her questioning disrupted the status quo that had developed around Gracie and Joe. Old emotions were stirred up. The more Elizabeth dug, the more unsettled people became.

Elizabeth was asked to visit the high school drama students for a Q and A. Her responses to their questions were strange and inappropriate.

When the actual Mary Kay Letourneau scandal hit the news and the tabloids went crazy over it, I couldn’t bear to read about it. There was no missing it in the headlines, but I didn’t get into the details. I found it cringe-inducing to get into the details of this story that is so similar. The way Natalie Portman took on the persona of Gracie was eerie to the max. I thought she took it too far with Joe, especially. He was vulnerable and she was relentless.

Todd Haynes and the screenwriter Samy Burch (a woman) were saying a lot in this movie. It was about our fascination with the shocking and sick parts of society. It was about how broken people justify their own brokenness. It was about how one repugnant act can affect so many people. In interviews, Todd Haynes mentioned Bergman’s film Persona as inspiration for this one.

Natalie Portman really captured that Bergmanesque aspect of the film. Is this how actresses engulf their characters? If Elizabeth’s behavior is really how actresses find a way into character I found it off-putting.

A lot of people thought this movie was funny. I didn’t see much humor except for the “not enough hot dogs” joke at the beginning.

The film explores the shadow side of human nature. It does a great job with that. That didn’t make me “like” the story. But it did make for a well done film with impeccable performances.

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