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  • Writer's pictureMax Markowitz

May December

How Long Will It Take………. Until The Illusion’s Broken?

“This is just what grownups do.”

By the time Natalie Portman patronizingly speaks these words in a most dehumanizing context, the damage has already been done. Years have gone by, confidences have numbed, bodies shut down, curiosities imprisoned and loneliness runs rampant. So how come then in this very moment of May December’s final act does it feel as though everything is about to become so much worse?

“Who we are vs who we are as prescribed by society” has always been the unifying thread of Todd Haynes’s works. His newest film May December (Brought to him by Natalie Portman after she became enthralled by the revolutionary script by Samy Burch whose writing has just been nominated for an Oscar) sharply weaves topics of denial, blame, accountability, creative license, predation, innocence, identity and manipulation into one elaborate spider web of unclear intentions and campy deception. 

May December begins with Natalie Portman’s Juillard graduate actress Elizabeth Berry settling into her hotel having arrived in Savannah Georgia from L.A. to conduct research for her upcoming role that she hopes will elevate her soap opera career to something bigger. The role in question is Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore) an older woman who in 1992 was caught having a sexual affair with 13-year-old Joe Yoo (Charles Melton). Joe had been best friends with Gracie’s son Georgie (Cory Michael Smith).  Gracie, who had been deeply unhappy in her marriage, took Joe on as an assistant for her part-time job at a local pet shop. After Gracie’s transgressions became public, a nationwide scandal ensued, and Gracie, though pregnant with Joe’s child, went to prison for many years. 

Despite all the odds, she and the now 36-year-old Joe are still together, having been married for many years, have a daughter Honor (Piper Curda) at college and two twins Mary and Charlie (Elizabeth Yu & Gabriel Chung) about to leave for college. The two are known by everyone in their suburban community and appear to be well-regarded. Joe is an X-ray technician, Gracie bakes and arranges flowers for everyone and their kids have many friends. 

Elizabeth arrives right at the beginning of graduation week and attempts to embody “Gracie’s Grey Areas” and as the week progresses, she becomes a burden on Gracie’s attempts to control everything and Joe’s already fragile state of mind. Elizabeth takes advantage of her helpful contacts in Savannah consisting of Gracie’s ex-husband Tom (D.W. Moffett), her former lawyer (Lawrence Arancio), the pet shop owner who caught Gracie and Joe having sex (Charles Green), and Georgie. 

May December is a film that’s the source of discomfort stems from not knowing where any of the characters' boundaries are and how the quieter characters get caught up in the crossfires. The entire ensemble of May December have roles of such significance and even those who appear in just a couple or even one scene pull off an effectively chilling performance and have the complexities of their character development written all over their faces which never breaks and therefore, shadows their attempts at holding it all together. 

Cory Michael Smith is particularly memorable as Georgie whose anger towards Gracie for destabilizing his life is explored through a very “Cheshire Cat” persona. He’s always grinning, smiling, slivering, and loitering around unexpectedly, ready to appear and then disappear on a whim. The only time Elizabeth ever feels uncomfortable in the entire movie is when she’s sitting next to him after a disastrous dinner before graduation day. He smokes in her asthmatic face and playfully blackmails her for a job on the film knowing she won’t be able to deliver. 

Of course, appearances are never as they appear on the surface, especially in a Todd Haynes film. Gracie likes to present herself as very childlike and naive (As a way of avoiding taking responsibility for her actions, no doubt) but she’s much tougher and stronger than she wants to admit. The guilt she remains in denial of leaves her in unpredictable mood swings which Joe is burdened with having to maintain. Julianne Moore is one of those actors you can rely on to cry on cue. I’ve never seen her cry like this before. The sound of her wailing sounds as though her nose is congested and she’s constantly having to blow it. She also has a lisp that she lets out in moments she deems convenient for her. 

She insists that she was sheltered growing up and married so young and so quickly while Joe was more sexually experienced than her because he consensually slept with two girls his own age when he was in the 7th grade. She also says he grew up faster because he had to take care of his younger sisters and his parents were not very present. Elizabeth thrives on all the information she is receiving and grows more powerful throughout the week, even going as far as to erotically explain the mechanics of performing sex scenes as an actor to Mary’s high school drama class. She loses herself in the monologue as though she’s climaxing but with utmost secrecy. Mary is visibly disturbed and she and Honor already feel unnerved by her presence. Honor in a very passive-aggressive manner insults Elizabeth during dinner and Mary slams the door on her while Charlie takes after Joe and quietly surrenders to his discomfort.

Gracie’s sense of manipulation is extraordinarily based on gender dynamics. She can insult women in her life but she can’t control them. She enjoys treating Joe and Charlie like little boys in public from mocking Charlie’s calcium deficiency to reprimanding Joe for having two beers. This is apparent from the very beginning of May December. “Where are you going?” Gracie asks Mary and her friends at a home barbecue the first time you see her. “The roof” Mary answers. “OK, I’m not calling anybody's parents and telling them their children died today,” Gracie whines. “Charlie, you watch them”. 

Elizabeth’s growing persona of Gracie eventually unnerves Gracie. Gracie initially is very friendly to Elizabeth and excited about her arrival. She sees Elizabeth’s ambition as an opportunity to present herself as a victim to the world even as she insists she doesn’t think about the past. Eventually, it dawns on Gracie that Elizabeth knows exactly who she is and Gracie’s ideal portrayal is never going to crystalize resulting in her becoming colder to Elizabeth. 

Elizabeth just as passionately could’ve tried to embody Gracie had she taken responsibility for her actions and acknowledged the ugly truth of what she did because Elizabeth could sniff her out like a rodent. Gracie knows that once Elizabeth finds what she’s looking for, she has to bring that persona to fruition and Gracie’s mistake is that she couldn’t just let that play out. She had to lock herself inside her little bubble of credibility where there's always a narrow justification for what she did. There are boundaries and transgressions so severe that once you cross them, there’s a level of being able to credibly judge other people that “I’m sorry, you’re just no longer allowed to participate in”. Raping a child for example because you are unhappy in your marriage and entrapping him by bearing his three children. Gracie still looks for ways to convince herself that all the boxes of feces anonymously sent to her house and her years in prison are merely a “Coincidence”.

She sobs on her bed over her lost ability to control the narrative but insists she’s crying over a permanently canceled order of one of her upside-down pineapple cakes the townspeople buy ONLY because they feel sorry for her. “Joyce Mercer called and canceled all future orders, she’s moving because her mom is sick, who cares?! I HATE when things like that happen! I wasted hours in that kitchen, I have this WHOLE cake and it’s going to go right in the GARBAGE!” Joe consoles her as she wails hysterically like a newborn having to sleep in their mess. Perception is like clockwork, it changes constantly. Presentation truly is everything to Gracie. The truth is everything else. “Now we’re going to spread the cherries at the bottom of the pan” Gracie instructs Elizabeth as they bake together. “And do it NICELY because it DOES matter how it LOOKS.” 

Mirrors also play a huge role in the structure of how the week unfolds because what do mirrors do? The shadow reflections and reflections can be molded to preserve illusions about who someone is and what the context of their reality is. The first time a mirror marks its significance, Elizabeth and Gracie are sitting on a sofa in a boutique as Mary tries on dresses for graduation day. The camera slowly zooms in on the mirror not showing Elizabeth and Gracie but their reflections and Gracie’s attempts at control. “Oh, Mary! You’re so brave for showing your arms like that and not caring about these unrealistic body standards, that’s something I could NEVER do when I was your age. You’re different from me, you’re a MODERN woman.” Mary nervously fidgets with her hands and chooses a different dress that’s not as revealing. 

Elizabeth later tries applying Gracie’s beauty rituals in front of her bathroom mirror but Gracie takes control and applies the makeup herself forcing Elizabeth to stand like a statue. By the time a mirror takes center stage the third time, the illusion’s been broken after Honor humiliates Gracie by revealing she got her a scale for her graduation gift and implies she got Mary one too. Gracie sulkingly declares in the restaurant bathroom that those who keep their expectations low will never be disappointed.

“What were your expectations?” Elizabeth asks. “My expectations were that tonight would go well, my children would love me and my life would be perfect,” Gracie answers. 

“That’s naive,” Elizabeth says bitterly. “I AM naive,” Gracie responds in her lisp. “I always have been. It’s been a gift in a way.” 

The final time a mirror dominates, Elizabeth is standing in front of her mirror in her hotel room and delivers a passionate and tearful monologue with a letter Gracie wrote Joe before she went to prison. It is at THIS moment that Elizabeth truly completes her metamorphosis into Gracie. It’s such an out-of-body experience for her and the camera remains still on her without zooming in. It is uncomfortable for viewers but liberating for Elizabeth. She mastered her art but the tragedy is that she can only nail it perfectly once. Gracie lives in denial so once Elizabeth knows the full truth, she can no longer access herself to Gracie’s state of mind. 

Initially, Elizabeth appears to be open-minded about Gracie’s crime but because she’s arriving as such an opportunist, she lacks the boundaries and sensitivity the situation requires and her limitless quest leads her to drop hints to Joe just as Gracie had once down and Joe nervously but then willingly has sex with her. The two relax comfortably on the bed after but Elizabeth refuses to acknowledge the level of power Gracie has on him and then refers to Joe’s life as “A story”. Joe is furious and embarrassed and starts putting his clothes on very quickly. “You don’t need to get so worked up about it,” Elizabeth says annoyed as though he’s overreacting. Joe leaves in tears and Elizabeth doesn’t follow him out. Instead, she lies on her bed, her toes curled up in sexual satisfaction and excitedly rips open Grace's letter to Joe as though she is opening a present on Christmas morning. 

“I don’t care how old you were. Who was IN CHARGE?” Gracie insists after Joe finally musters the strength to confront her. Gracie knows deep down that she is in the wrong and now her prey is confronting his predator, so what does she do? Starts crying of course because she knows there’s no other way out. “It’s Graduation!” she shouts and leaves Joe petrified on the bed. He’s always been responsible for Gracie’s well-being but it was never his to bear. “I can’t tell if we’re bonding or if I’m creating a bad memory for you.” Joe sobs to Charlie after taking pot with him for the first time. “I just want you to have a good life”. “I will,” Charlie replies kindly. 

Graduation finally arrives and Gracie dares to ask Elizabeth if any of her time with her will have mattered in the end. Elizabeth was meeting Gracie in the twilight of her offense so she knew there was bound to be some ego-stroking required. No girl is interested in knowing why you want to go to the dance, they want to know why you want to go to the dance with them - “Because she’s a goddess and she should be shown a nice time.” is the kind of answer Gracie expects. 

Elizabeth finds Joe interesting but sees him as nothing compared to Gracie. He’s there for when she needs him so she can dispose of him when she’s finished and ready to wipe herself of the mess she made of him. Joe’s source of comfort and self-empowerment lies in his care for raising Monarch butterflies that he tearfully watches fly away on graduation day. Gracie refers to them as “bugs” and that could equally apply to how she sees Joe. 

She also weaponizes not just her traditional femininity but her status as a white woman as she likes to imagine Joe’s loyalty to her stemming from the Asian stereotype of Asian men being very servant-like and obedient. She strives to make her needs HIS number one priority without asking anything of him. There’s that racist assumption that he’ll just automatically comfort her and she doesn’t have to maintain him because she sees him as “Less than.” Maybe not in terms of worth (Though even that is very arguable based on how she talks to him.) but in what she expects from him. There’s a very domestic order to their interactions, particularly in the opening scenes when Gracie still feels in control. 

“Joe’s family was the ONLY Korean family in town so everybody knew them,” Gracie tells Elizabeth. “Half Korean,” Joe replies quietly. Any audience can see Joe as a male who’s been sexually abused because he was a child when it happened but Melton so accurately embodies the twitchy, quiet and nervous reserved mannerisms of a grown man whose been raped and shut down. He’s just as at risk of being raped again as he was years earlier, more so since he’s less likely to be believed and has the title of “male privilege” prescribed to him by modern society. The first time I saw May December, I thought that maybe Joe’s ending could be empowering because he may finally have it in him to break free. Having watched it repeatedly, it no longer makes a difference. Too much time has been wasted and too many versions of him live in his community's head but the REAL Joe doesn’t even know who he is. Gender exists but suffrage is a “human” lynching before anything else. It is the repetition of abuse against women that has escalated the gender divide society seems to prefer pretending isn’t as big as it is. The attitudes that manifest as a result may be understandable but will only continue to be unhelpful. 

“Men are a terrible species.” I was told the morning I saw May December for the first time.

………As you wish. Now we know how. 

By the time the graduation ends, Gracie’s “Servant” is “off duty” nowhere to be found and she’s focused on getting the last word with Elizabeth. Joe was the casualty of the war against these two people and now these generals (Both thinking they’ve won) meet on the battlefield all dressed in white, their battle over but their war nowhere near finished. Threats are made so simplistically and Gracie as well as May December as a whole takes leave with what we all want so badly to be true of ourselves and other people to see: 

“Insecure people are very dangerous, aren't they? I’m secure. Make sure you put that in there.” 

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