Gracie (Julianne Moore) molested a 7th grade boy, had his baby in prison, then married him. Elizabeth (Natalie Portman) is an actress preparing to play Gracie in a biopic. They spend a fraught week studying each other. Director Todd Haynes has denied May December is “camp.” Yet Moore and Portman are deliciously silly and scary as dueling narcissists. A grim tale becomes a tragicomedy about exploitation.
Elizabeth claims she wants to uncover the real Gracie. Yet, she’s distracted by surface details. She obsessively mimics Gracie’s mannerisms and lisp. Getting off on bad behavior even as she tut tuts it. These scenes let Portman indulge in the twitchy neuroses she brought to Jackie. Moore has a trickier assignment. Her Gracie is a mix of chipper housewife, sullen martyr, spiteful child and savvy manipulator. Enjoying her power while denying all responsibility for her actions.
The film would be heartless if not for Charles Melton’s vulnerable performance as Joe, Gracie’s now-grown victim/spouse. He’s learned to smile and play the hen-pecked husband. But Elizabeth’s visit forces him to re-examine his repressed trauma. Melton’s attempts to connect with his children before their high school graduation are painful and sad. They love him. But they are eager to escape the adolescence he’s still trapped in.
Gracie and Joe live in a community that has learned to ignore (or enable) them. Outrage has faded. Rubberneckers have moved on. They fear Elizabeth’s film will stoke old fires. Gracie exploits Joe. Now Elizabeth is exploiting them both. And the films’ audience is invited to do the same.
I enjoyed May December. But I can’t say, on a first watch, that I understood it. It touches on themes of social hypocrisy and complacency, double standards for male victims of abuse, and the morality of true crime “drama.” Can a film comment on exploitation without being exploitive? Does stunt casting draw attention to or distract from real life victims? Is there something profound here? Or is it all a campy joke? I wish Haynes had picked one of these topics to explore in depth. But he ends the two-hour film with a shrug. The audience is asked to do the rest of the work themselves.