‘May December’ Netflix Movie Review: Should You Watch?

May December Netflix Movie Review Should You WatchMay December Netflix Movie Review Should You Watch

May December, L to R: Natalie Portman as Elizabeth Berry with Julianne Moore as Gracie Atherton-Yoo. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix

Premiering at the Cannes Film Festival this past summer before a short run in theaters in November, May December is the latest film from writer/director Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven, Carol) adapted from Samy Burch’s 2020 Black Listed Screenplay.

Editor’s Note: The movie is only available on Netflix in the United States and Canada.

Based in part on the 1997 Mary Kay Letourneau case, the story centers around a married couple, Gracie & Joe, who live in the suburbs of Georgia with their twin children. However, their story is not your average romance – Gracie & Joe met & fell in love when Joe was a 13 year old part time pet shop employee and Gracie was his mid-30s married employer.

Now, decades after their criminal beginnings, Gracie & Joe’s relationship will be under the microscope once again as an independent film will be bringing their story to life for the big screen. Though cautious and concerned about the project, Gracie & Joe agree to allow the lead actress who will be playing Gracie in the movie, Elizabeth Berry, to shadow their family and gain an understanding of how their relationship came to be. However, as Elizabeth digs deeper and Gracie & Joe’s marriage starts to buckle under the pressure, the story becomes less about the sensational past and more about the complicated present of a family in crisis.

The script for May December was brought to Haynes’ attention by his co-lead actress & producer Natalie Portman, who plays the deeply fraught Elizabeth in the film. In a Netflix “Inside the Script” featurette, Haynes remarked that the script “evoked the kind of morality and ethics that used to be a much more prevalent part of movies that we all saw.”

Looking for an experienced hand to guide us through the moral ambiguity, Haynes turned to his longtime collaborator and celebrated actress Julianne Moore to take on the role of Gracie. May December marks Haynes & Moore’s fifth film together, including Moore’s Oscar-nominated performance in 2002’s Far From Heaven.

In Gracie and her relationship with Joe, Haynes gets to return to one of his more familiar story elements: the decay under the seemingly perfect life. Mental & physical illness rearing its head in Safe. The crumbling marriage and hidden sexual desires in Far From Heaven. The loveless & convenient marriage turned ugly in Carol. In May December, Gracie & Joe appear to have a battle-tested marriage that thrives despite their past. Living in a picturesque community with friends, family, and careers, they appear to have it all. However, as the story unfolds, the audience is slowly made aware of all the cracks in the facade. Toxic manipulation and controlling behavior stemming from their initial relationship dynamic of adult and child. Secret relationships & one night stands. Children cast aside or living in the shadow of the wrong type of fame & notoriety. All of this being wiped away or pushed down by the insecure yet suffocating puppetry at the command of Gracie.

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May December, L to R: Julianne Moore as Gracie Atherton-Yoo with Natalie Portman as Elizabeth Berry. Cr. François Duhamel / Courtesy of Netflix

Enter Elizabeth Berry. A wild card of two minds: a journalistic instinct to find the humanity & truth to satisfy her desire to portray Gracie fairly & accurately and a more sociopathic admiration for Gracie’s ability to wipe the slate clean every day, never showing guilt or shame in the face of rational evidence. Despite Gracie’s attempts to control the proceedings, Elizabeth seems to be taking pages from the Gracie playbook as she delves deeper into her character and uses her manipulations & lack of empathy to suit her own reality. Though more subtle and less confrontational, it wouldn’t shock anyone if Portman drew some inspiration from her Black Swan past to get into the mindset of her chess match with Moore’s portrayal of Gracie. The thought of another woman interrogating you and becoming you with designs on undermining you and exposing you seems akin in ways to more thriller-based versions of this type of story.

Stuck in the web & crumbling within at the nexus of this dynamic is Joe; corrupted, exploited, & massaged by Gracie’s influence from the beginning and starting to fray at the edges on his way to a complete meltdown. Played perfectly by the understated Charles Melton (“Riverdale”), Joe is lulled to sleep by the comforts of his life; a life seemingly derailed or obscured by the immature decisions of his youth. However, much like his well-nurtured butterflies, he craves for a new beginning of his own creation. He will never be seen as an equal to Gracie and, with the impending departure of his twin children off to college, he shutters to think about a life alone with her. He drinks, he acts out, he cheats. He just wants to break free of the chains of his old self before it’s too late.

Colliding these forces with a masterful direction, Todd Haynes creates one of the best films of his career. Evoking some of the dramatic flair of David Lynch’s view of suburbia and his past films’ history with the complicated roles we play in our own lives, Haynes weaves a rich tapestry of melodrama, madness, & metacommentary. Bold & stinging bursts of Marcelo Zarvos’ piano-laden score mixed with rich textures & hints of soft focus create a heightened yet sometimes soapy & comedic tone that draws our attention while the drama & the actions play out in a more subtle & tactical way.

The most radical way this movie shows its perfect execution is in its ability to never dip too far into the salaciousness of its back story and never allowing our minds to dwell on the criminal behavior of its subjects. Haynes presents it as a family crisis at a critical juncture on the eve of being exposed. 90s tabloid celebrity gives way to modern true crime dissection & humanizing family trauma.

Overall, May December is one of the best films of the year and in the running for best Netflix Original film of 2023. Burch & Mechanik’s empathetic, darkly funny, & deeply layered screenplay is a perfect match for Haynes’ fascination with the decay under pristine facades. Portman, Moore, & Melton play off each other perfectly in the most uncomfortable ways. I hope to see this film continue to be recognized as we get further into awards season.


Watch May December If You Like

  • Black Swan
  • Single White Female
  • Far From Heaven
  • Carol

MVP of May December

Natalie Portman as Elizabeth Berry

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May December, Natalie Portman as Elizabeth Berry. Cr. François Duhamel / Courtesy of Netflix

After spending the last decade largely bouncing between MCU movies and forgettable films, Portman seems to come back to form in her role as actress Elizabeth Berry in May December. Bringing the script to Todd Haynes’ attention herself and co-producing the project as well, Portman has been all in on this one from the beginning.

With her meta portrayal of sorts as an actress researching a role for an upcoming biopic, Portman creates a portrait of a woman who admires all the wrong aspects of her subject and uses those traits to delve deeper into their carefully crafted existence. Ranging from uncomfortable method acting to sociopathic levels of disregard, Portman’s Elizabeth blurs the lines between her own abilities to manipulate & dismiss those closest to her and the role of her sociopathic subject, which sheds guilt & shame at every turn. It’s Portman’s most interesting & enticing role since Black Swan and she knocks it out of the park.

5/5Excellent

★★★★★

While many of us haven’t seen the remainder of Netflix’s 2023 slate, it’s safe to say May December is their most alluring & layered film to date. Haynes and his trio of amazing actors have pulled something special out of something so divisive.

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