Cookies help us deliver our Services. By using our Services, you agree to our use of cookies. Learn More.

May December Review: A Midnight Movie In Awards Bait Clothing

  • Julianne Moore is hilariously over-the-top
  • Charles Melton is heartbreakingly real
  • Natalie Portman balances the tones
  • Could have gone further as either comedy or drama

The world premiere of "May December" at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival was a late-night affair: the public screening began at 10:30 p.m., while the press screening was scheduled for 11 p.m. but ended up starting even later. Practically, this is the result of being scheduled the same night as Martin Scorsese's 3.5-hour "Killers of the Flower Moon." Secretly, I think this happened because the festival programmers know that, while included in the prestigious Official Competition section, "May December" has the heart of a midnight movie.

You might not expect a post-#MeToo drama about grooming and underage sexual abuse starring two Oscar-winning actresses to be something you'd describe as "fun" or "funny." But then you might notice one of the production companies is Gloria Sanchez Productions, Jessica Elbaum and Will Ferrell's feminist comedy studio. And you might also be aware that director Todd Haynes is a playful postmodernist filmmaker whose closest thing to a default mode is camp melodrama inspired by Douglas Sirk. And then you watch "May December" and you quickly realize it's a campy dark comedy.

That's not to say it's not also serious. The best camp is on some level serious, and this film treats its subject matter seriously. To quote John Waters' guest appearance on "The Simpsons," it's "tragically ludicrous" and "ludicrously tragic." Its primary target seems to be examining why so many people haven't taken stories like this one seriously, a weird meta-reflection on Hollywood's reflexive impulse to turn real-life tragedy into lurid pulp. It's a movie designed to provoke mixed feelings, but one guaranteed to make you feel them.

If you or someone you know may be the victim of child abuse, please contact the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-Child (1-800-422-4453) or contact their live chat services.

If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN's National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

Heavy drama and heightened comedy

Set in 2015 before the #MeToo reckoning, "May December" follows an actress named Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman) as she spends time with the married couple Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore) and Joe Yoo (Charles Melton) to research the role of Gracie in a biopic. What makes Gracie notable enough for a movie is that she's 23 years older than her husband — and he was her 7th-grade student when they started sleeping together. Even after the media scandal and time in prison, Gracie seems to have no sense that there's anything wrong about their "love," and Joe has stuck with her as the father of their now college-aged children.

Gracie's sheer obliviousness is the primary source of the film's humor. Living in the suburbs and making a living as a baker for a limited number of devoted clients, she's so convinced of her own normality that she doesn't get that she's both awful and ridiculous. Moore's performance is hyper-stylized and almost cartoony, which works excellently for both the film's comedic aspects and the central issue of the unknowability of her character's psychology. Christopher Blauvet's cinematography and Marcelo Zarvos' music emphasize the chaotic quality and lurid appeal of Moore's big acting choices.

Funnily enough, the most understated and subtly devastating performance in this movie comes from Melton, an actor best known for "Riverdale" of all things. Joe spends much of the movie in as much denial about the reality of his situation as his wife is, though obviously for very different reasons. From a distance, he comes across as surprisingly stable and is a good father to his children, loving and supportive where their mother is petty and critical. But the good things he has going for him don't remove the tragedy of his own childhood being cut short. His simultaneously antagonistic and erotic interactions with Elizabeth keep you on edge, and the scene in which he finally confronts Gracie about his buried anxieties is one that sticks with you.

Natalie Portman holds the film together

If Charles Melton and Julianne Moore seem to be acting in entirely different movies, it's Natalie Portman's performance that's able to split the difference between realism and camp and bring the whole thing together. It makes sense: Elizabeth is an actress playing Gracie, so she has to be both distinctively not her role and also be able to get into her role — a little too much so in some of the film's cringingly funniest moments. As both an actress and an activist formerly connected to Time's Up, there's a fascinating level of self-reflection on Portman's part here (Portman is credited as one of the producers of this film, and she brought Sammy Burch's screenplay to Haynes' attention to begin with).

The ethics of Elizabeth's film are open for debate. We're never shown what the finished product looks like and only see a limited but maybe-revealing bit of the actual filming process. If there's any definitive statement being made here about the packaging of scandal as entertainment, it's to be wary of the ability of even the most well-intentioned dramatizations to really know the truth of what they're presenting — and that even that inherent flaw doesn't stop such dramatizations from being entertaining, however uncomfortable that may be.

"May December" walks a complicated tonal tightrope and manages not to fall down. It's possible the balance of campy comedy and drama could have been perfected further, going harder in one direction or another to make a more powerful emotional impact. As is, it's still a really impressive movie that's both thoughtful and luridly fascinating. Expect people to talk about the performances throughout award season, and for the film to have a long life beyond that on the midnight movie circuit.

"May December" premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. It will debut on Netflix in the fall.