Review: ‘May December’ is a flawed but fascinating melodrama

In the realm of tabloid scandals, particularly those involving individuals claiming alien abduction to Pluto to meet Abraham Lincoln, most can be readily dismissed as unfounded tales. However, some of the more grounded scandals chronicled in such sensational publications often resemble scenarios reminiscent of a Jerry Springer show, where a wife’s infidelity involves all five of her husband’s brothers. Director Todd Haynes’ latest Netflix film, May December, deviates from the immediate repercussions of such a scandal, instead delving into the lives of those involved two decades later.

I won’t disclose the exact event that forms the film’s core, because it is revealed within the first fifteen to twenty minutes and I will endeavor to avoid it to prevent spoilers. With that being said, May December is a very odd yet highly engaging piece of cinema; its rock-solid performances hold that up. Julianne MooreNatalie Portman, and the incredible Charles Melton do so much of the heavy lifting for the film; even when it steers into the melodramatic, it’s still tough to pull your eyes away. 

May December’s discussion of tabloid themes does not explicitly condemn the very much illegal core events at its heart. But I did take some issues with the feeling the film even lightly flirted with condoning them. While I skew positive on the film overall, general audiences and critics alike will find a highly entertaining but very polarizing film awaits them when May December drops on Netflix on December 1st.

The story of May December

 The weirdness of May December commences with the original score dropping into our ears. The same four piano keystrokes play and repeat and slowly lower in pitch while we observe a close-up shot of a flower and then see an orange monarch butterfly crawl onto it. We continue to see more butterflies as the opening credits continue, and the dramatic music makes us think we’re entering a TV crime drama from decades ago. We’re finally introduced to a southern town, the large trees and moss hanging down from the limbs in Savannah, Georgia. We then see a black car parked in front of a lovely home. Out steps the TV actress Elizabeth (Natalie Portman), who has arrived in town and is staying in the house while she gathers information for her next movie role.

Portman’s Elizabeth is on the phone, but as she goes inside and opens the curtains, she picks up a welcoming card from the property management. It says, “We are huge fans of Norah’s Ark!”, the apparent title of her popular TV show. The scene cuts, and we’re introduced to Joe (Charles Melton), a thirty-something man with a jawline that could test the resolve of even the most committed woman. We see him as he works scraping off and starting up a BBQ grill on his back porch overlooking the water. Joe’s wife is inside the home. We watch Gracie (Julianne Moore) in the kitchen; she puts the finishing touches on a white cake while talking with a friend. As soon as we’re made privy to the fact that Joe and Gracie are a couple, not only is the age difference blatantly apparent, but the pairing seems odd in general.

The dynamic between Joe, Gracie, and Elizabeth

As Melton’s Joe walks into the kitchen and procures a beer from the refrigerator, Gracie looks over. She says, “That’s two,” as if she’s monitoring his alcohol consumption before walking over and kissing him. Gracie continues speaking with her friend as they prepare food for the gathering they’re putting together. They continue to talk about Elizabeth, who will be attending. She is going to be playing Gracie in the upcoming movie. Joe and Gracie’s teenage kids, Mary (Elizabeth Yu) and Charlie (Gabriel Chung) come through the house with some friends. They’re heading up onto the roof, and Gracie tells them to be careful. Next, we get a tracking shot. It’s as if we’re perched on the front of Elizabeth’s car as the score kicks back in.

The shot winds through the swamps and glades on the back roads of southern Georgia, under more moss-covered trees, until it finally arrives at Joe and Gracie’s home. Portman’s Elizabeth arrives in a brown dress, hat, and sunglasses, goes up to the front door, and rings, but nobody answers, so she picks up a package that was delivered and takes it around to the back of the house, where she hears some people. Gracie spots Elizabeth and comes down off the porch. 

Elizabeth and Gracie size each other up

The two women meet with some comments feigning friendliness. Yet the tension is apparent as the two are clearly sizing the other up. Elizabeth spends the day at the party. She asks Joe and Gracie some questions about themselves as part of her interviewing process. The interview continues through the first and second acts. Elizabeth speaks with neighbors, relatives, friends, and anybody who would’ve been familiar with the events that triggered the movie-to-be’s plot. As things progress towards the May December’s finale,  cracks begin to show in Joe and Gracie’s relationship. While fascinating in its entirety, the conclusion does leave something to be desired after delivering scene after scene of escalating tension and intrigue.

Some puzzling direction from Todd Haynes

From a technical perspective, Todd Haynes’ direction was a bit puzzling, to be honest. There are some humorous moments, one of them taking place within the first few minutes with Moore’s character delivering a line about hot dogs after a wild camera pan in shot. Yet the May December’s tone settles onto a much more serious wavelength as things progress, which, in retrospect, leaves me with a feeling of unevenness and a word I mentioned at the outset: oddness. 

This strange script from Samy Burch gives Haynes the liberty he needs to juggle this mishmash of tones that becomes a kind of campy fun as the story winds its way along the narrative. As I alluded to in my intro, I take an issue May December’s script and how it depicts Moore’s character’s prior activities. The original score by Marcelo Zarvos reminded me of something you’d hear in an ’80s or 90’s police detective drama, like Columbo, for the few readers old enough to get that reference point. While at first I found it a neat and interesting choice, it had gotten to be fairly grading in its recurring theme melody by the finale. 

Charles Melton with a best supporting performance in May December

But it cannot be understated how great these performances are in May December. While Portman and Moore are arguably among the greatest living actresses and deliver fantastic performances in their own right, the internalized conflict that Charles Melton brings to his character lands him as one of the best supporting roles I’ve seen this year. 

This curiosity of a film ended up being one that I find myself intrigued and fascinated by to some extent, yet I can’t get fully on board with it and how it explores its themes. If there had been even one character that had denounced Moore’s actions and expressed disgust and anger about how sick and perverse what she did was, I would immediately raise my overall critics’ score. Some will love May December. Some will hate it, and many will be perplexed by it. I find myself mostly in the last category.

Final thoughts on Netflix’s May December

As I’ve just finished describing in some detail, May December is one weird ass movie, but it has its redeeming qualities, with the core performances by Portman, Melton, and Moore being at the top of that list. When it drops on Netflix in December, check this one out for yourself. However, next May, you’ll probably still be wondering what exactly May December was trying to say. 

May December is now streaming

May December is now streaming on Netflix. Check it out however you like to view your streaming media.

Have you watched May December yet? What do you think – do you agree with Russell’s review? Join the conversation by leaving a comment or messaging us on X (formerly Twitter) @MoviesWeTexted.

If you’re still looking for something to watch this weekend, check out How the Gringo Stole Christmas and then go read our exclusive interview with the film’s director, Angel Gracia. If you’re interested in something more literary, we’ve got you covered, too.  Check out Brian Kitson’s book review of A Man Called Ove. The book by Frederik Backman  inspired the movie A Man Called Otto, with Tom Hanks, Mariana Treviño and more.