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film review
  • May December
  • Directed by Todd Haynes
  • Written by Samy Burch
  • Starring Natalie Portman, Julianne Moore and Charles Melton
  • Classification N/A; 113 minutes
  • Opens in select theatres Nov. 17, including the TIFF Bell Lightbox; streaming on Netflix starting Dec. 1

Critic’s Pick

Some movies take their slow, sweet time to rev up and solidify their particular sensibilities. But then there is May December, in which director Todd Haynes establishes his intentions in minute one, maybe 1.5, when his camera zooms in tight on Julianne Moore’s frazzled housewife as she opens her fridge, pausing as the soundtrack booms with an overdramatic violin wail, before announcing to no one in particular that, “I don’t think we have enough hot dogs.” DUHN-DUHN.

Welcome to the high-camp cheekiness of Haynes’s latest melodrama, a ripped-from-the-tabloids confection that feels like a Lifetime TV movie reimagined by an early-career Atom Egoyan. Given that there is no tense musical cue to soundtrack that declaration right there, this is meant as a high compliment, as May December stands tall in the great Haynes pantheon of such shrewdly elegant psychodramas as Safe, Far from Heaven, and Carol.

Blatantly riffing on the Hard Copy-ready saga of Mary Kay Letourneau, May December follows actress Elizabeth (Natalie Portman) as she visits the Savannah home of Gracie (Moore) and Joe (Charles Melton), a couple whose relationship, such as it were, began when Gracie was a married mother of two and Joe was a seventh-grade schoolboy. After being arrested for sexual abuse, Gracie went to jail for a few years, where she gave birth to Joe’s daughter. Soon after she was released, the pair reunited, adding a set of twins to the mix. Two decades later, the family’s scandal’s past has somewhat faded – though Elizabeth’s visit, in preparation to play a version of Gracie in a new film, threatens to stir repressed memories and strain marital tensions.

Such an outlandishly queasy premise could be so easily mangled in less inspired hands. Yet Haynes approaches the material with a lip-smacking enthusiasm, playfully mocking the high-volume drama as much as he embraces it. This is a juicy, outré exercise that gets its kicks from booting its audience into deliberately uncomfortable corners and then leaving them there to stew.

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Elizabeth’s journey, for instance, begins as a quest for that most actorly of destinations (truth!) before revealing itself to be as duplicitous as the internal drama that Gracie herself is playing day in and day out. The film’s many identity games are hypnotic and frothy, with Haynes’s predilection for such hall-of-mirrors fun extending to two key scenes in which Elizabeth and Gracie face off as they stare in front of … mirrors. There is something to be said for a filmmaker not even pretending to be coy.

Open this photo in gallery:

Charles Melton, director Todd Haynes and Julianne Moore on the set of May December.François Duhamel/Netflix

Moore, in her fifth collaboration with Haynes, is wonderfully tragic as Gracie, giving the character a soft lisp that renders her both victim and aggressor. When the slightest tragedy arrives at Gracie’s doorstep – say, a cancelled order for her home-baking business – she breaks down into full-blown pity-party mode, a storm of depression which Moore delivers with just the right mix of injury and self-delusion. Playing Gracie’s understudy, of a sort, Portman must balance curiosity and calculation – the actress playing the actress hoping to play the tabloid star. It is as fun an assignment as they come, and Portman knows it.

Melton, meanwhile, runs away with what might at first appear to be the more thankless role, the boy trapped inside the body of a man. Yet the actor, best known until now as playing Reggie on the tongue-in-cheek teen soap Riverdale, delivers a performance as richly fulfilling as those of his two co-stars – a perfect example of reading and then replicating the energy of the room.

As Gracie might say, grab the hot dogs and make a meal out of it.

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