Todd Haynes is a filmmaker that knows how to discomfort, but in a subtle manner. He has achieved this in different ways throughout his films using different thematic focuses, from incorporating a strange disease in Safe, to a false biopic of a glam rock mega-star that very well could have been David Bowie in Velvet Goldmine, to a melodrama about closeted homosexuality and a failed marriage in Far from Heaven, to a lesbian relationship in Carol, a children’s fable in Wonderstruck or the environmental manifestation and denounce in Dark Waters.
In May December, he indefectibly discomforts once again with two parallel stories that intertwine, but centers his focus in Gracie Atherton (Julianne Moore), a teacher that had an affair with one of his students, 13-year-old Joe Yoo (Charles Melton). A story that turned into a media scandal and ended up in a prison sentence. But the episode did not stop there: Gracie got pregnant as a product of that affair and conceived that child behind bars. Gracie and Joe are now married and have three children. This suggests, as Haynes pointed out in the press conference, that her character is not someone associated to pedophilia because her actions were not repetitive, there was no pattern. She did the crime and did the time, but time has proven that his relationship with Joe is that of a true love.
The questions and doubts enter the picture upon the appearance of Elizabeth (Natalie Portman), a famous actress that will play Gracie in a biopic soon to be shot. To that purpose, in her researching to become one with the character, Elizabeth meets Gracie and her family, Joe included. This brings attached a certain competitiveness between both of them and even some contempt from Gracie towards Elizabeth. Gracie fulfills a role as both mother and wife to Joe, while he, although caring for her and comforting her in face of his shortcomings, somehow it does not keep him from being a man-child, a boy that missed stages in life and now finds himself in his thirties, with children of his own that are on their way to graduate. Elizabeth, perhaps for her passion to get into character, inquires with ill-will, compares herself and aims to be Gracie, by copying each one of her mannerisms. She even manages to sustain dialogues with Gracie’s entire circle (ex-husband, son, friends), a fact that does not escape Joe and will involve not only great temptation but a terrible lesson. After having sex with Elizabeth, who proves to have a certain degree of psychopathic morbidity, will violently indicate him: “This is what grown-ups do”.
The story is completed with a small scene that is among the film’s stand-out moments; a scene that, while still being funny, tells something important about Joe’s personality. He is smoking marijuana with his son for the first time. He does not know how to smoke it and makes him cough constantly, generating a situation of remembrance and play between father and son that is fundamental. Despite having grown up the hard way, it did not keep him from being a good father, and his children have no doubts about it.
Haynes succeeds in his mise-en-scene of the film: the use of mirrors, alternating Moore and Portman’s positions as to point out that one finally is taking the other’s place. The film will get made, but their lives are now disrupted.
Director: Todd Haynes. Writing Credits: Samy Burch, Alex Mechanik. Cast: Natalie Portman, Julianne Moore, Charles Melton. Producers: Jessica Elbaum, Will Ferrell, Grant S. Johnson, Pamela Koffler, Tyler W. Konney, Sophie Mas, Natalie Portman, Christine Vachon. Runtime: 113 minutes.