Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore Face Off

May 23, 2023

True crime, while no longer on the hype train that it was a few years back, is still an insanely popular genre. People love listening to podcasts about serial killers, watching documentaries about cons gone wrong, and enjoying fictionalized versions of these criminals in their movies and television shows. This craze is perhaps what leads actress Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman) to pick up the role, playing the fictionalized version of Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore) in May December. As far as criminals go, Gracie might seem completely non-threatening on the surface. She’s a housewife who loves to bake and is affectionate with her husband and their two kids. Then you find out her crime. At 36 years old, she seduced and raped Joe Yoo (Charles Melton), who was 13 years old at the time. Convincing Joe that they were in love, Gracie went on to have their children in jail and the two eventually got married.

After twenty years, this tabloid “romance” is resurfacing again when Elizabeth is cast in the role of Gracie, and she comes to spend some time with Gracie in order to better get her bearings playing the character. As an outsider, we are put into Elizabeth’s shoes as she navigates the confusing and bizarre world of Gracie. We watch her interact with her young husband, who obviously has never known any real relationship besides this one, and watch as she treats him more like a son than a husband. We meet her estranged children from her first marriage, some of which are older or the same age as Joe. We peel back the layers of Gracie’s friendly demeanor to reveal the frail and insecure woman beneath.

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Natalie Portman & Julianne Moore Are Perfect Frenemies

Image via Cannes

When you have two powerhouses like Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore playing off each other, it’s hard to find any faults in the performances. Moore is so delectably dramatic as Gracie, who is both naive and cunning. Her immediate dislike of Elizabeth is fair, she’s had her experiences with people trying to take her down over the years, but it’s hard to sympathize with her knowing her crimes. On the flip side, Portman plays Elizabeth with all the literal drama required of this character who is trying to embody her subject. As much as she is trying to be honest to who Gracie is, she’s also quietly pushing for Joe to realize that he is not in the loving marriage he thinks he is.

Speaking of Joe, Melton holds his own against Moore and Portman. Primarily known for teen dramas like Riverdale, he is able to balance the simplicity of Joe’s character with his burgeoning curiosity about the life he never got to lead. Has he always been in love with Gracie, or was he simply told he was in love with her? (The answer is obvious to us but not to him.)

Todd Haynes Doles Out Comedy While the Script Plays on Tragedy

Image via Cannes

It’s clear director Todd Haynes enjoyed himself with this film. The way he uses suspenseful music and close-camera zooms adds a bit of drama into mundane moments. But if he’s trying to impart some dark comedy, then the script is trying to lean into the tragedy. Written by Samy Burch, there’s a lot that is hinted at not-too-subtly throughout the film about Joe and Gracie’s relationship. It’s one that is clearly uneven when it comes to power dynamics and is even emotionally manipulative at times.

Though it isn’t said explicitly, May December is obviously inspired by the real-life story of Mary Kay Letourneau. In that story, Letourneau was a school teacher and not a pet shop worker like Gracie. But she did meet a 12-year-old named Vili Fualaau, who she seduced and raped. Like Gracie, Letourneau also gave birth to his children, though it was during sentencing and between prison sentences, unlike Gracie who seemingly gave birth in jail.

It seems odd at times to make light of something that is a very real crime, and Burch’s script is determined to remind us that, although Joe and Gracie appear happy now, she is a predator. When Elizabeth watches the tapes of boys auditioning for Joe’s part, it’s repulsive to imagine these kids as anything other than kids. So when the film tries to shift tonally to a more comedic edge, it’s not fully successful. The balance isn’t struck properly so there isn’t true synergy.

At the end, May December is only a glimpse into a moment in time. As we watch Elizabeth play Gracie, we see the culmination of her work visiting Gracie and her family. Whether or not her impression is accurate or exaggerated is for you to decide. While Haynes isn’t at his best with May December, a talented cast and an intriguing story make the film an entertaining exercise all the same.

Rating: C+

May December had its world premiere at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival.

Disclaimer: This story is auto-aggregated by a computer program and has not been created or edited by filmibee.
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