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Virginia Film Festival highlights “May December” and the perils of public perception

With his newest feature, Todd Haynes dives into identity and iniquity, leaving viewers with more questions than answers

<p>“May December” is a darkly funny and deeply uncomfortable exploration into the nature of right and wrong and what it means to be a performer.</p>

“May December” is a darkly funny and deeply uncomfortable exploration into the nature of right and wrong and what it means to be a performer.

Todd Haynes’ "May December” was one of the final screenings at this year’s Virginia Film Festival, and Sunday afternoon found the Paramount Theater packed with viewers eagerly anticipating his newest feature. The film, starring Academy Award winners Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman, debuted at Festival de Cannes last May to critical acclaim, and has been making its rounds on the festival circuit in advance of its arrival in US theaters Nov. 17 and on Netflix Dec. 1. 

The story is built around a trip by well-known actress Elizabeth Berry to Savannah, Georgia, the home of Gracie Atherton-Yoo, whom Elizabeth is preparing to play in an upcoming film. 20 years previously, at the age of 36, Gracie became a tabloid fixture for an affair with her now-husband Joe Yoo, who was in sixth grade at the time — the May to her December. 

The film is loosely based on the story of Mary Kay Letorneau, who in the late 1990s had an illicit affair with her middle school student, gave birth to his children behind bars and ultimately married him after her release. More broadly, however, Haynes is commenting on America’s obsession with scandal, on the perils and pitfalls of tabloid culture and how, even 20 years later, it can result in everything from an independent film about one’s life to a box of shit on one’s front porch.  

Distribution rights for “May December” were acquired by Netflix back in May, meaning that the film will see only a limited theatrical release before coming to streaming. No doubt this will serve as a boon for viewership, the intriguing logline combined with the star power at the helm of the production. Yet with the modern craze for true crime, there also exists a fear that its clever and calculated aspects will be lost on viewers who come seeking solely the grisly details of such a relationship, when in fact what Haynes has created goes far deeper than that.

“May December” is a darkly funny and deeply uncomfortable exploration into the nature of right and wrong and what it means to be a performer. At surface level, the film appears placid, but its muted palettes and performances are sharply contrasted by a haunting Marcelo Zarvos score that — though perhaps equally well suited for a Halloween movie — serves to underscore the dysfunction and disconnect at the core of every interaction.  

Most of these interactions occur between Portman’s Elizabeth and various figures around the community as she seeks to better understand Moore’s Gracie by way of adopting her entire persona. Sporting Gracie’s trademark sundresses, sponge-applicated cream blush and slight lisp, Elizabeth leans so far into method acting as to even attend their children’s graduation ceremony. 

From behind her sunglasses, Elizabeth watches as Gracie mothers — or smothers, more aptly — not only her children but even her husband, living her life shamelessly and without regret. Yet Elizabeth, too, is shameless. In a conversation with a high school class she is teaching, she discusses the actor’s tumultuous relationship with the line between reality and fiction — a line which becomes increasingly blurred as Elizabeth goes from dipping her toe to completely submerging herself in Gracie’s identity. 

The two women occupy dichotomous roles within the film — Elizabeth is searching for answers about the past, answers which Gracie has been trying to bury for 20 years — yet both are subject to the same shrouded whispers and side-eyed glances. They are two angles on the same enigma, angles that cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt finds and frames to perfection. As Gracie teaches Elizabeth her makeup routine, the pair stare first directly into the camera, and then directly into each others’ eyes. As they help Gracie’s daughter shop for a graduation dress, a tri-fold mirror positions a reflection of Gracie on either side of Elizabeth. 

It comes as no shock that Portman and Moore perform phenomenally in their respective roles. More of a surprise is the breakout performance of Charles Melton, best known for his role on the CW’s “Riverdale” as Joe Yoo. Over the course of the film Elizabeth’s presence forces his character to process and parse his existence, or lack thereof, in his relationship with Gracie. Fascinated with monarch butterflies, Joe traps them in a cage, breeds them and ultimately sets them free. Not the subtlest of metaphors, but a nonetheless powerful representation of a victim whose denial prevents him from identifying as such. 

Ultimately, “May December” is a film about moral ambiguity. “Insecure people are dangerous,” Gracie says to Elizabeth, but even more dangerous is the inability to distinguish past from present, innocence from guilt, right from wrong. According to Haynes, at least, it’s all just shades of gray.

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