Saturday, December 16, 2023

May December

Movie Name:
May December
Year of Release: 2023
Director: Todd Haynes
Starring: Natalie Portman, Julianne Moore, Charles Melton, Andrea Frankle, Gabriel Chung, Elizabeth Yu, D.W. Moffett, Charles Green, Chris Tenzis, Cory Michael Smith, Kelvin Han Yee, Mike Lopez 
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8
Watch it on Netflix

Synopsis and Review
After the stupendous "Carol", Todd Haynes tackled "Wonderstruck" and "Dark Waters", both features which while critically well received, were also somewhat muted in their audience response. That has changed with "May December" which had its debut at the Cannes Film Festival of 2023, where it was immediately greeted with good reviews, upon which Netflix bought it for distribution. The film which features a script by Sammy Burch (from a story co-authored with Alex Mechanik), and was on the Black List (for best unproduced scripts) focuses its narrative on the story of two women who come into each others' lives for very different reasons. Elizabeth is an actress who comes to Savannah, GA, to meet Gracie, a woman who years before was incarcerated for having a romantic relationship with one of her students, who was 13 at the time (Gracie was 36). Gracie who was married when the liaison occurred (and had children with her then husband), gave up the life she had built, in order to be with Joe (her student). Gracie and Joe have been together for more than twenty years and have had 3 children. Elizabeth ingratiates herself in the life of the Yoos, since she's about to play a fictionalized version of Gracie in an independent film. She reassures everyone she intends to portray their story honestly. As Elizabeth researches more about Gracie, she starts uncovering the impact that the controversial relationship had in the community, and on the people in their family and friendship circle. Elizabeth starts realizing that while Gracie is for the most part polite and welcoming towards her, everyone she talks to gives a slightly different version of her personality and of who she is. Joe in the meantime is also having his fair share of self-doubt, of where he is in his life, particularly since all his children are about to leave his house, he is only 36, and has only been in a serious relationship that has been tainted by controversy and also Gracie's control. 
"May December" is of course informed by the episode which occurred in the 1990s involving Mary Kay Letourneau and her underage student, Vili Fualaau. The script however takes a smart angle when it comes to depicting these events, by making them the backdrop for the investigation that Elizabeth embarks on. By placing Elizabeth as the narrator or the host for the narrative, it allows us to understand and view who Gracie and Joe are from the outside, as opposed to being a first hand retelling of what exactly took place. It also allows for a better understanding of the web of relationships that were impacted by their relationship, which started illicitly. What is very commendable about the way Todd Haynes illustrates this narrative, is the fact that all central characters are playing to a certain extent a role. While Elizabeth is indeed the actress researching her role, Gracie and Joe are themselves playing roles in their own lives and relationship. Gracie is passive aggressive, controlling and not necessarily the warmest person, but tries to embody the character of the loving housewife and mother, while Joe is trying to play a content husband, but everything about him screams lack of maturity, lack of conformity, fear for what's coming next and the lust for a liberty he hasn't experienced. It's a film that is made of layers, one that illustrates how characters details get progressively uncovered by interactions with others, by how different characters perceive them and their actions. And while Elizabeth is indeed the actress immersing herself in the lives of others, crossing lines that she probably shouldn't, there's a certain calculated aspect to everything she does. Sadly the script doesn't veer much in her direction, and that ends up being the biggest fault in this narrative. Very little is captured of Elizabeth and her aspirations, beyond what she's witnessing of these other people's lives. The cast is truly fantastic, with a knockout performance from Natalie Portman who is seemingly sweet, but also manipulating and almost machiavellian in her dealings, with great support from Julianne Moore who makes Gracie into someone not necessarily likable, and definitely more than meets the eye. Charles Melton is equally good as the young father who's coming to terms with his own crossroads in life, and what his next steps are going to be. The production team is solid, featuring the cinematography of Christopher Blauvelt and score from Marcelo Zarvos. A good film from a very talented filmmaker.