• Tue. Feb 27th, 2024

Movie Curiosities

The online diary of an aspiring movie nerd

Here’s one I really had to mull over for a while.

May December comes to us from Todd Haynes (PDX represent!), who doesn’t tend to make films very often. When he does, they vary wildly in quality from Carol (now regarded as a holiday classic among the LGBTQ+ crowd) to Wonderstruck (a sappy misshapen trifle) to Dark Waters (overwrought and horribly paced). And now we’re here with a movie about pedophilia. Buckle up, folks.

The premise begins with Gracie Atherton and Joe Yoo, respectively played by Julianne Moore and Charles Melton. Back in the ’90s, Gracie was caught in an extramarital affair with Joe when she was 36 and he was 13. Gracie got arrested and later gave birth to Joe’s child (Honor, played by Piper Curda) in prison. For obvious reasons, this was a massive tabloid scandal back in the day.

Cut to 2015. Gracie and Joe have been happily married for the past two decades, they’ve had another pair of twin children (Mary and Charlie, respectively played by Elizabeth Yu and Gabriel Chung) now set to graduate high school, and they’ve more or less settled into a pleasant status quo. Then comes the news that some indie movie about them is in the works.

Enter Elizabeth Berry (producer Natalie Portman), a TV actor who landed the starring role of Gracie Atherton. Thus she’s flown out to spend a few days with the Atherton-Yoo family, interview anyone connected with that incident in the ’90s, and get herself inside the head of a married woman who fell in love with a teenager. Hilarity ensues.

What’s at once frustrating and brilliant about this movie is in how slippery it is. Like our protagonist (Elizabeth, in case that wasn’t clear), the film isn’t really interested in condemning or condoning what happened so much as understanding it. To repeat, we’ve got a married woman with teenage kids of her own, she has sex with a teenage boy knowing full well it’ll destroy her life, then the woman and the boy go on to live happily ever after. How does that happen?

Well, there may be certain inaccuracies with the premise of that question.

There’s a particularly illuminating interview with Gracie’s old lawyer (Morris Sperber, played by Lawrence Arancio). He recalls that Gracie and Joe were under the delusion that love would conquer all and everyone would simply leave them be with no consequences. Morris goes a step further and speculates that Gracie and Joe may still be in that same state of denial.

In another scene, Joe states firmly that he was never a victim. He knew what he was doing, he benefited greatly from it, and he never regretted anything. That’s before the scene when he starts to question whether he was really old enough to be making those decisions. Turns out Gracie and Joe have gotten by all these years by doing their best to ignore the past and keep moving forward. Up until Elizabeth’s arrival and her inquiries pick at so many scabs and now all these unresolved traumas are resurfacing — gee, who saw that coming?

For better and for worse, this is very much a movie about unanswered questions. It’s implied that Elizabeth is having problems with her offscreen fiance, and this is never resolved. There are text messages (not to mention that climax) implying that Joe may be seeing someone else or is secretly unhappy with his marriage, but nothing is ever confirmed. There are plenty of rumors about Gracie with regards to childhood traumas and how stable her sanity really is, but there’s precious little that’s reliable or definitive either way.

Yes, this unfortunately means a lot of time wasted on loose ends and dead ends in the plot. But on the upside, it makes a statement about the complexity of a person. Elizabeth sets out to try and understand every layer of Gracie’s psyche, effectively portraying her hangups and desires and flaws within two hours’ screentime, and must resolve herself to the impossibility of the task. This is a story worth telling, and it’s worth trying to understand how and why this sort of thing happens, but any film, any book, any one person can only do so much toward comprehending and explaining something as mercurial and multifaceted as a human being.

Unfortunately, everyone else must also resolve themselves to this same impossibility, whether they know it or not. With Gracie, Joe, and everyone who knew them back in the ’90s about to be impersonated on mass media, they all have different expectations of what they want the movie to be. Granted, most of them are smart enough to realize that Elizabeth is just an actor with no say in the creative process. But that doesn’t stop them from trying to get their intentions and justifications on record, with the implicit hope of making their voices heard in the final picture. And then we get assholes like Georgie (Cory Michael Smith), Gracie’s first son from her previous marriage, looking for ways to enrich himself as a direct result of the film.

That said, at least Cory Michael Smith is having so much fun playing the heel that he serves well as a kind of comic relief. The cast is uniformly solid all-around, really. Special kudos are due to Charles Melton, who got stuck with the tough job of playing someone who appears to be an empty-headed pretty little nothing, but may or may not have a lot more going on under the surface. Melton certainly does a good job playing someone who went directly from childhood to adulthood and skipped a lot of crucial formative steps in between, I’ll give him that.

Then we have Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore. “Passionate to the point of insanity” is nothing new for either of these actors, they’re both running on all cylinders, and they work pure magic with this material. There’s one particular scene in which Gracie demonstrates her makeup routine by putting her makeup on Elizabeth — that one scene is so intimate, so personal, so dramatically intense and thematically charged that it’s worth the cost of admission on its own.

To say nothing of the big climactic monologue delivered by Elizabeth, in makeup and character, in extreme close-up, directly into the camera. Holy shit.

May December is a film that asks a lot of its audience. Simply buying into the premise of following a movie about a pedophile is a big ask to begin with. What’s more, this is a deeply complex movie about a lot of deeply complex topics. It could be a statement about the inherent complexity of people in a world and culture that demands everything to be simple. It could be a statement about the gaps between who we really are, who we pretend to be, and who we perceive ourselves to be. It could be a statement about how our entertainment gets made and who potentially gets exploited in the process. It could be all of these things, none of them, and probably a few other facets that haven’t occurred to me.

This is not for anyone who’s looking for a quick and easy movie to pass a couple hours. It’s a challenging movie, but not as long or intensive as, say, Killers of the Flower Moon. So if you’re an arthouse enthusiast looking for a heady and insightful film to hit the sweet spot in between, check this out.

By Curiosity Inc.

I hold a B.S. in Bioinformatics, the only one from Pacific University's Class of '09. I was the stage-hand-in-chief of my high school drama department and I'm a bass drummer for the Last Regiment of Syncopated Drummers. I dabble in video games and I'm still pretty good at DDR. My primary hobby is going online for upcoming movie news. I am a movie buff, a movie nerd, whatever you want to call it. Comic books are another hobby, but I'm not talking about Superman or Spider-Man or those books that number in the triple-digits. I'm talking about Watchmen, Preacher, Sandman, etc. Self-contained, dramatic, intellectual stories that couldn't be accomplished in any other medium. I'm a proud son of Oregon, born and raised here. I've been just about everywhere in North and Central America and I love it right here.

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