Film Review: May December

FIFTY+SA Arts Reviewer, Dave Bradley, reviews the American drama film, May December (M).

Director Todd Haynes’ latest is a darkly, even unsettlingly comedic drama drawn from the life of Mary Kay Letourneau, who’s probably more infamous in the US than here.

Screenwriters Samy Burch and Alex Mechanik have used the basic facts, however, to fashion a tale that’s all about family, identity, performance, and questioning the truth. Any truth.

Back in 2015, actress Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman), a star of stage, screen, and commercials, arrives at the bustling Savannah home of Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore in her fourth film for Haynes). Elizabeth is there (somewhat improbably) to research Gracie’s life so that she can play the older woman in an indie biopic, and although Gracie and her complicated family seem happy(ish), at first, that’s not necessarily correct.

Gracie’s increasingly troubled husband Joe (Charles Melton) is comfortable enough with Elizabeth’s presence, but his and Gracie’s teen kids (Elizabeth Yu and Gracie Chung) are less than pleased. And as for Gracie’s other, trickily extended family members, they greet Elizabeth with a mixture of unease, contempt, and even a sort of dangerous horniness.

Elizabeth can hold her own though: she shocks some bullies with R-Rated talk about movie sex scenes, easily manipulates Joe, and deliberately gets too personal with her queries about Gracie and her controversial “hated” status. These two women have several scenes together where even simple things take on deep and vaguely disturbing edges: a highlight, where they look into a mirror/the camera while inanely talking about and applying make-up almost belongs in an Ingmar Bergman movie.

This might all sound pretty serious, but Haynes and his screenwriters make sure that there’s plenty of edgy humour here too. Composer Marcelo Zarvos also coolly repurposes the florid musical score of director Joseph Losey’s 1971 period drama The Go-Between, so that everything deliberately sounds INCREDIBLY DRAMATIC even when it’s not, as in an early scene where Gracie fears she’s run out of hot dogs.

And Haynes keeps on asking: who exactly is playing who?

4 out of 5 STARS

May December is in cinemas now

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