by Hope Madden
I’ve missed Todd Haynes.
He hasn’t gone anywhere, and I don’t mean to imply that what he’s made in recent years is bad. In 2021 he made a remarkable documentary on The Velvet Underground, and his previous two narrative features – Dark Waters and Wonderstruck – were worthwhile and interesting. They just weren’t very Todd Haynes.
Perhaps after his 2015 masterpiece Carol, the capstone to a string of magnificent and unusual films (Safe, Velvet Goldmine, Far from Heaven and I’m Not There), it was time for Haynes to find his stride with a more mainstream audience.
May December feels more like Haynes of old: a sultry situation masquerading as hum drum, populated by Tennessee Williams-esque damaged beauties wanting, wanting. Plus, Julianne Moore.
Moore, who stunned in both Safe and Far from Heaven, returns to Haynes-land as Gracie. Years back, beautiful Gracie went to prison for loving the wrong man. Well, boy. 7th grader, actually. Indeed, she had Joe Yoo’s (played in adulthood by Charles Melton) baby behind bars. But after prison, Gracie and Joe built a life together. Their oldest daughter is in college now, and their twins Charlie (Gabriel Chung) and Mary (Elizabeth Yu) are just about to graduate from high school.
Soon-to-be empty nesters, Gracie and Joe welcome (if somewhat reluctantly) TV star Elizabeth (Natalie Portman) to their home. In just a few weeks, Elizabeth will play Gracie in a new independent feature film about Joe and Gracie’s life.
Portman is magnificent, biting into a role with more salty meat than anything she’s handled since Black Swan. Elizabeth is, of course, not what she appears to be. But what’s magical in Portman’s performance is the way the actor utilizes odd moments to reveal who Elizabeth truly is.
Moore is characteristically brilliant and wonderfully enigmatic. Elizabeth’s goal is to understand Gracie, which makes that the main goal of May December, but Moore’s not giving an inch. Is Gracie the master manipulator people might believe, or is she the babe in the woods she projects? Or is human nature more complicated than that, no matter how much movies and actors and audiences try to believe otherwise?
The whole cast impresses, but it’s Melton who truly surprises. The one innocent in the film, stunted by a lifetime of repressed and lived trauma, his Joe is the heartbreaking emotional honesty in a film that flaunts insincerity.
The filmmaker, working from a script by Samy Burch and Alex Menchanik, finds wry humor in the soap opera nature of the tale. It’s a morally ambiguous, gorgeously realized character study. It’s so good to have Todd Haynes back.