Capsule Review: May December (2023)

Ever since May December premiered at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and earned the film a Palme d’Or nomination, I have been looking forward to its streaming debut on Netflix.

It’s easy to see why this film warrants attention: May December marks the much-anticipated return of Todd Haynes in a feature film since 2019’s Dark Waters. The film also reunites with Haynes’ frequent muse Julianne Moore and interestingly, this is the first time the director and the star worked with Natalie Portman. Then, there’s the storytelling hook: Samy Burch’s screenplay follows the famous actress Elizabeth Barry (Natalie Portman) researching her real-life character of Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore) for an upcoming independent film.

We learn that Gracie used to be part of the scandal that made headlines two decades earlier when she was — in her mid-30s at the time — caught having sex with a 13-year-old Joe Yoo in a pet store. Their controversial relationship managed to last longer than expected and they even married with three children.

The older Joe (Charles Melton) is now 36 years old and he looks as if he’s living a happy, married life with his wife and children. Elizabeth’s subsequent arrival sees her spending more time getting to know Gracie from her relationship to her daily routine and personality traits.

Gracie and Joe’s sex scandal and controversial relationship bear similarities to the Mary Kay Letourneau case that shocked the U.S. in the late ’90s. Letourneau was an American teacher guilty of second-degree rape of a 12-year-old child, Vili Fualaau. The latter was a sixth-grade student at Shorewood Elementary in Burien, Washington. Letourneau even gave birth to his children while awaiting her sentencing.

Despite the nature of the film, Haynes chose not to show the time when Gracie and Joe were caught in a sex scandal. Whatever happened to them in the past is devoid of flashback moments other than the proof that came from the letters and conversations. Instead, he is more interested in exploring the aftermath of Gracie and Joe’s post-scandal married life and how Elizabeth’s involvement is more or less affecting the two of them.

May December benefits from Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman’s excellent performances in their respective roles as Gracie and Elizabeth. Charles Melton, who plays Reggie in TV’s Riverdale and also appears in Bad Boys for Life, nearly steals the show as Gracie’s conflicted younger husband, Joe. Haynes has undoubtedly brought out the best in his fine cast and I like how he subverts the use of Marcelo Zarvos’ piano-laden score that evokes the feel of a psychological thriller. Haynes has a knack for making good use of close-up shots to accentuate the otherwise mundane drama moments.

But for all the efforts that the superb cast and Haynes’ subtle direction in May December, I still can’t help but feel the film remains a missed opportunity. The tonal shift between the psychological thriller and pitch-black comedy is rather misguided and the movie somehow lacks the emotional depth to make me care or root for any of the characters here, no matter how good their acting is.

By the time the film reaches its third act, what I have here is equivalent to anticipating something significant to happen, only to end up with a rather underwhelming payoff. It’s a pity because Julianne Moore, Natalie Portman and Charles Melton gave their all in May December but were ultimately defeated by a largely muted and hollow storytelling.

May December is currently streaming on Netflix.