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May December (2023) Review

Cinema has always been a medium of ghosts. Each second that flicks by onscreen is a time capsule confronting us with who we were, making us face who we are and who we’ll be. This notion of the past bleeding into the present is what makes Todd Haynes’ newest offering so haunting. Centered around an actress, Elizabeth, shadowing Gracie, the pedophilic woman she’s set to play in an upcoming film, it’s a movie that’s deeply concerned with the lies we tell each other and ourselves. Gracie’s still with Joe decades after famously assaulting him when he was thirteen and she was thirty-six. She seems desperate for Elizabeth to ‘tell the story right.’ Maybe that’s why she lets the actress visit during such a chaotic time, as her and Joe’s children are about to graduate high school. Amidst so much change, Elizabeth’s probing questions soon reveal cracks in the happy couple’s mask. What follows is not just a reckoning with the pain of yesterday, but also the instability of today, the uncertainty of tomorrow. Living up to all that is promised in the trailer, this is easily one of the best things you can watch this week.

Something that really stood out in Samy Burch’s script was the subtlety. With such a controversial premise, it’d have been easy for the film to lean towards the melodramatic; but instead of having screaming matches or overly intense confrontations, the movie grounds itself in small moments of silence. We learn so much about these characters through how they interact, comforting or silently judging one another. It’s also impressive how fully realized each person is in this movie; they have their own emotional arcs, their own desires and worries. When combined with the powerhouse acting seen throughout, it’s clear this movie was destined to be a homerun.

Natalie Portman has already cemented herself as one of the best actresses working today, and her performance here is a great example of why that is. It’s always intriguing to see an actress play an actress, and this role allowed Portman to do a fascinating dive into the artistic process. The level of commitment she brings to Elizabeth’s character is astounding, with one monologue in particular serving as a stunning showcase for her ability to infuse emotion into any scene. Julianne Moore as Gracie provides a great counterbalance to Elizabeth, expertly capturing the self-delusion of someone who could assault a child and genuinely not think they did anything wrong—or at least tell themselves that’s the case. As we see Gracie sob herself to sleep every night, losing all composure at the slightest inconvenience, viewers wonder if she’s more aware than she seems. I also think the script did a good job of complicating her character so she’s not just a one-dimensional monster, yet Haynes never slipped into apologia; but despite these amazing performances from some of the most talented people Hollywood has to offer, I think the supporting cast was the real high point of this film. Charles Melton was particularly memorable, giving a Best Supporting Actor-worthy performance as Joe. There’s so much subtlety to his work here; he steals the screen every time. It’s a heartbreaking dive into the psychology of someone who’s been groomed to believe this is the life they signed up for. Watching Joe realize thirteen was far too young to make the kinds of decisions he was forced to will stay with viewers long after credits roll. I still think about some of his scenes; what an actor. This great work was further highlighted by a tender yet bold cinematography.

Christopher Blauvelt’s cinematography offers a masterclass in restraint. The camera never moves unnecessarily under his watch, and is often kept tightly focused on the characters, letting the performances speak for themselves. This isn’t to say the film is bland; it’s full of beautifully-crafted moments that highlight how absurd and horrifying the situation really is. Blauvelt distorts reality in small ways, like filming a lot of Elizabeth and Gracie’s interactions through mirrors, as if speaking to the connection between actress and subject, hinting at a gut-wrenching depravity just beneath the surface. Music by Marcelo Zarvos adds to this effect. There’s an intense crescendo when Gracie opens the fridge, similar to what you’d hear in a horror movie, making us think there’s a severed hand or some other unspeakable horror behind the door, only for her to say, ‘I don’t think we have enough hotdogs.’ Moments like this show how Haynes and co. are deeply in touch with the absurd horror of the every day, making for bold stylistic choices that ultimately tie the film together beautifully.

The past won’t come back to haunt us at some vague future date—it already is haunting us, day by day, cloaked in suburban niceties. No matter how many pineapple upside down cakes we stuff our faces with, we can never move forward if we don’t first look back. To quote Faulkner: ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past.’ May December arrives on Netflix this Friday, and is one of those movies everyone should see. If you enjoyed this review, consider subscribing to the blog’s Patreon by clicking here! It helps pay the various fees that come with running a website, and keeps this blog ad-free and independent. There are also some cool benefits for those who choose to support the blog including: suggesting which movies I review, getting personalized movie recommendations, access to free giveaways and more!

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