May December Todd Haynes film review

The new Todd Haynes film May December is an ode to trash

4 out of 5 stars

Todd Haynes’s borderline kitsch film May December features Natalie Portman as Elizabeth Berry, an asthmatic, obsessive actress working on the role of a lifetime. She’s visiting with Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore), who, 20 years prior, became a national tabloid story after she was caught having an affair with her seventh-grade coworker at a local pet shop. 

Researching the role for an independent film, Berry pulls herself into the fragile ecosystem of the Atherton-Yoo home, gripping her hooks into the suburban lives of a family unable to grapple with reality. Lounging on the bed of her rented home after being pumped a few times by a desperately lonely man who can’t hold it together, she says, “This is just what grown-ups do.” As she stumbles out of her home, she retreats to work, pilfering the emotions of others for the benefit of performance.

Based in part on the infamous 1990s tabloid story about Mary Kay Letourneau, the schoolteacher who had an affair with an underage student who was just 12 years old when he was first abused, the film is deeply entrenched not only in the specific lascivious curiosity surrounding the story but evocative of the aesthetic markers of the tabloid press. The film’s heightened emotions channel not only the tone of gossip magazines but the culture that surrounds it, from the voyeuristic “Where Are They Now?” segments to the TV Movie of the Week vibe that the film is actively commenting on — and that Elizabeth Berry is actively attempting to subvert. 

May December works best as a dark comedy, a portrait of the American suburbs hungry for gossip and cobblers but unwilling to grapple with tough conversations. With a cloying but ironic score that thunders with the same treble of a child’s scream, the film captures the prurient gaze of waiting in the grocery store line, absorbing through headlines and grainy photos the best and worst days of your fellow citizenry. 

While it might be generous to say that Haynes tries to imagine what life might be like for this family decades later, he’s far more interested in layers of performance, whether in life or for the screen. Both Moore and Portman are astonishing mirrors of one another; neither woman is especially sympathetic, but both have calculated visions of diverging femininity. In the broadest strokes, the film is often about what it means to “grow up,” capturing that anxiety of realizing that your parents are no more adult than you are. 

May December

As one of America’s best filmmakers, Todd Haynes lands in the middle of his oeuvre with May December. It’s decadent and captures the ennui and horror of suburbia. The strangeness of the environment, which acts as a kind of prison for the various members of the family, also serves as a greater commentary on the isolated nature of the American experience, which fails to see beyond white picket fences, which are increasingly as duplicitous and unusual as the very idea of American innocence. 

Part of this suburban fantasy aligns with the idea of perfection. Gracie and Elizabeth aspire towards a certain level of feminine perfection, focusing on elements of their work and public image that need to be polished and grinning. The reality of both women’s lives is that they care less about upholding the substance of their lives and work as they do about a carefully catered image. Though not moralistic in tone, the film showcases how often a good public image appears more important than a good moral life. In the context of some of Haynes’s other recent films, like Dark Waters or Carol, where characters suffer or are ostracized for fighting for what is right or choosing love, we see the damaging impact of a society that values the image of goodness over goodness itself. 

In a world where we all have a little mirror and camera in our pockets, May December captures both the anxiety and fantasy of living in 2023. It’s a film about performance and the various incarnations of acting out in a world that cares increasingly less about substance. Though far from my favourite Haynes film, May December is still delectable. ■

May December (directed by Todd Haynes)

May December opens in Montreal theatres on Nov. 17 and premieres on Netflix on Dec. 1.

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