Todd Haynes Twists the Knife With His Sizzling, Uncomfortable May December: Review

This review is part of our coverage of the 2023 New York Film Festival.

The Pitch: Never let it be said that beloved TV and film actress Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman) doesn’t bury herself in the part. For her latest role, Berry travels to Georgia to spend some time researching Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore), who became a tabloid sensation in the 1990s when the then-married thirtysomething slept, Mary Kay Letourneau-like, with a 13-year-old stockboy named Joe Yoo (Charles Melton). She went to jail, had her first of three kids with him, and married him when she got out.

Now, they live a happy life of domesticity, or so it seems at least; they move around a lot, and still get mailed the occasional box of feces, but their lives are so overshadowed by scandal that it seems quaint to them. Besides, they’ve got more important things to worry about, like their oldest’s impending high school graduation.

But the more Elizabeth spends time with them, the more she peels back the layers of their scandal: the previous family Gracie’s indiscretion tore apart, the glimmers of discord in her current marriage, and so much more. Moreover, the mirror begins to stare back at her as her time with Gracie and Joe tests her own moral limits.

Boys Are Hard! At first blush, May December seems sedate, almost bucolic: its characters are gentle, and scenes play out with smiling Southern hospitality. But director Todd Haynes quickly turns up the tonal dial, twisting you from contemplative character study to something approaching camp in the blink of an eye.

Moore’s Gracie is all smiles and welcoming words for Elizabeth when she arrives, a Very Nice Lady who toils away at her pineapple upside-down cakes and keeps to the business of motherhood. Then, Haynes will zoom in on her face staring into the fridge as melodramatic strings sear across the soundscape like a giallo film (the score, by Marcelo Zavros, rearranges and reorchestrates a Michel Legrand score from 1971’s The Go-Between) and she mutters, “I don’t think we have enough hot dogs.”

May December (Netflix)