Todd Haynes has made a career out of exploring unique personalities. That curious nature of his continues with May December, one of his most playful works to date. Opening the 61st New York Film Festival, it’s arguably the funniest thing he’s ever done. Even with the laughs, he’s still pondering human nature and what makes someone who they are. Armed with some tremendous acting, it’s fertile ground for exploration. NYFF has an interesting little treat on its hands here.
May December defies easy convention. While it’s campy and soapy at times, there’s also a sly sense of humor at play, all filtered through Haynes’ lens of observation. It’s certainly one of his most enjoyable films, even if it ultimately feels a little bit slighter than some of his other works. Still, there’s an unsettling nature that’s always there, just below the surface. It’s certainly in the upper tier for me, but it can’t match the power of something like Carol, for example. Still, it undeniably works.
Actress Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman) is preparing for a new film role, and as part of her preparation, she’s headed to spend some time with the real-life inspiration for the movie. That happens to be Gracie Atherton-Yu (Julianne Moore). Twenty years ago, Gracie and Joe (Charles Melton) were notoriously caught in a romantic tryst. The tabloids had a field day with them, as he’s more than twenty years younger than her. Now, with the film being made, Elizabeth has come study Gracie.
As Elizabeth observes the family dynamics, she’s struck by how much is buried underneath the surface. At the same time, Joe is finally starting to confront what happened, here at thirty six years old, as their children are all about to be away at college. While this is happening, Gracie is studying Elizabeth just as much, noticing both their similarities and differences. It all builds to some boiling points, but also shows just how hard it is to ever fully understand someone. We can try, but we’re all our own little enigmas.
Natalie Portman is excellent in a slyly complex role, while Julianne Moore is her reliably great self, working again with Haynes. The big discovery is Charles Melton, who has a couple of really great scenes, one with each of the ladies. Portman is best in show, really deconstructing what an actress can do when obsessing over a role, while Moore finds both humor and almost horror in her complicated character. When they have scenes together, there’s almost always uncomfortable laughter. Melton is very much the soul of the film, so there’s less humor with his scenes, but the most important ones involve him. Supporting players in the flick include Gabriel Chung, Piper Curda, D.W. Moffett, Cory Michael Smith, Elizabeth Yu, and more.
Todd Haynes directs a screenplay here from Samy Burch and Alex Mechanik. He’s relishing in the camp and soapy nature, especially when it could have just been melodrama. The score from Marcelo Zarvos really hammers that home, while the visuals from cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt are luscious. The script sets the pins up for Haynes to knock down, along with his main talented trio. They all lean into the camp of it all, but they also never forget how disturbing some of this actually is. The results speak for themself. I wouldn’t call this Haynes at his most mainstream, since that would be Dark Waters, but this will actually play amazingly well at home on Netflix, which is a nice little bonus.
May December is a fun way to kick off NYFF for me. It’s sort of mixing high and low art in a way that works better than you might expect. Of course, having Todd Haynes, Julianne Moore, and Natalie Portman on hand goes a long way towards making that happen. After some strong buzz out of the Cannes Film Festival, the movie played like gangbusters here in New York. At the very least, this should be an awards player in Best Actress for Portman and Best Supporting Actress for Moore, deservedly so, too.