Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

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Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

‘May December’ is Worthy of Its Plaudits

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This awards season, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is spoiled for choice. Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” has been judged the “film of the century,” “The Color Purple” — directed by Samuel “Blitz” Bazawule — continues to generate considerable buzz and Sean Durkin’s “The Iron Claw” left many a theater-goer teary-eyed. Yet a surprise contender has emerged from the pack as a sleeper — the Todd Haynes-helmed “May December.”

The film, nominated for four Golden Globes, stars Natalie Portman as Elizabeth, a method actress doing research for an upcoming film depicting the sexual union between Julianne Moore’s middle-aged Gracie and the then-underage Joe Yoo (played by “Riverdale’s” Charles Melton). 

Gracie and Joe have since been married following the former’s release from prison, where she birthed the first of the couple’s children. The situation is already strained given Gracie’s pedophilic reputation and her difficult relationship with her children from her first marriage; it’s hardly made any better by Elizabeth’s ceaseless, careful prying. 

Indeed, though the actress’ status as an outsider to her role’s disturbing history may suggest that she is some kind of heroic audience surrogate, she is anything but. As she mines Joe and Gracie’s lives for usable histrionic nuggets, Elizabeth reveals herself to be more concerned with seeing just how far she can push the family’s limits than with compassionate research practices. In her hands, method acting becomes a justification for abhorrent, manipulative behavior and salacious glee, as eventually reflected in her performance as Gracie at the film’s conclusion. 

Of course, Gracie — as to be expected — isn’t much better. Outside of her statutory transgressions, Gracie is chillingly hell-bent on maintaining the lie that her liaison with Joe was out of love, even as her machinations arrest her husband’s emotional development. The manner in which she so callously abandoned her first husband and kids, too, leaves much to be desired, casting doubt on her assurances to Elizabeth that — instead of the lascivious predator that the tabloids make her out to be — she is a family woman first and foremost. 

In fact, herein lies the real appeal of “May December.” Elizabeth and Gracie are intriguing in their own right, but it is Melton’s Joe who steals the show. He is the picture of a man stuck in time — clinging desperately to the belief that his tale is one of love and not maliciousness, lest the truth shatter him and the life he’s built for himself. From his cringing deference to Gracie to his inability to connect substantively with his son and daughters, Joe’s subtle weakness is on display from minute one, simultaneously heartbreaking and horrific. 

On a macro scale, “May December” obviously has a lot to say about the danger of leery, scandal-obsessed media (via Elizabeth’s damaging influence on her subjects), as well as how easily “romance” can conceal unhealthy realities (readily apparent through the film’s exploration of Joe and Gracie’s intricate tryst). Most striking, however, is its nuanced understanding of how abuse functions. Through the suggestion that Gracie herself was molested by her father, as well as Joe’s uncomfortable (and sometimes disconcerting) attempts at growing closer to his son in particular, “May December” subtly acknowledges that systems of maltreatment are at the end of the day the result of a generational domino effect. Is each character still individually responsible for their actions? Absolutely. But they are also buffeted back and forth by forces they neither understand nor in many cases even acknowledge, the tragic victims of some original act of cruelty. 

So this awards season, in addition to the current frontrunners for Best Picture and Best Leading Actor/Actress, be sure to take a moment to appreciate Portman’s, Moore’s and Melton’s creation — I can assure you that “May December” will not disappoint. Just be prepared to approach the film openly and with a critical eye — there are layers beneath the surface that are captivating and troubling without measure.

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