May December review: "Todd Haynes' latest is wickedly funny yet truly unsettling"

May December (2023)
(Image: © Rocket Science/Sky)

GamesRadar+ Verdict

Wickedly funny yet truly unsettling, May December walks a tonal tightrope with compelling style.

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Early on in the latest film from Todd Haynes (Carol, Far from Heaven, Dark Waters), Julianne Moore dramatically throws open a fridge door. Staring into the cold light, the camera suddenly zooms in on Moore’s face as a charged chord on the piano is struck: “I don’t think we have enough hot dogs,” she utters, completely deadpan, as the close-up shot unsettlingly lingers. This moment of high-camp melodrama signals that May December may not be the movie you expect, given that it draws inspiration from a shocking true story. 

Moore plays Gracie, a figure loosely based on Mary Kay Letourneau, an American woman who was convicted of the second-degree rape of a child in 1997. That child was her then 12-year-old student, whom she later married and had two children with. The tabloids were gripped for years by the highly publicised story, which here receives a clever spin from Haynes and screenwriter Samy Burch. 

Rather than offering a conventional retelling of events, May December imagines a fictionalised scenario with a comparable couple, set 20 years after the initial incident. Seemingly happy, their relationship starts to buckle when an actress, Elizabeth (Natalie Portman), arrives to do research for a film she’s making about their lives. 

As such, May December occupies something of a morally grey space. On the one hand, the sensitive subject matter makes for an incredibly uncomfortable watch in places; on the other, it’s incredibly entertaining. The film thrives on fascinating juxtapositions, Haynes striking a keen balance between true-life complexities and theatrical melodrama. 

may december

(Image credit: Sky Cinema)

Both Moore and Portman are sensational, fully committing to the almost soap opera-like brief. There is a focus on movement that sees Elizabeth begin to mimic Gracie down to the smallest mannerism, like a slight touch of the hair. Haynes’ superb attention to detail extends to his use of mirrors, highlighting just how much Elizabeth is trying to imitate Gracie. 

“Mechanical or removed?” she asks herself with a cool stare, attempting total immersion in the other woman’s mind. Slowly but surely, you realise that in this strange world, where none of the characters have boundaries, somehow Elizabeth may be the most messed-up of the bunch.

While Gracie and Elizabeth are wrapped up in this bizarre affair, the former’s husband Joe silently looks on from the sidelines. Portrayed by Riverdale’s Charles Melton, Joe is really the beating heart of the movie, a child in a man’s body who was thrown into adulthood too soon, stalling his development. 

Joe’s clearly been struggling with an internal battle for years; and so we wait for him to reach breaking point. Neatly contrasting with the outsized nature of the rest of the performances, Melton’s quiet turn crucially grounds the film in sincerity. 

It’s a truthfulness and honesty the film requires, preventing it from veering off completely into the wilds of melodrama. At times you may feel that Haynes and co. don’t quite know what to make of it all, but on the whole the risky tone pays off. May December is a challenging film for sure, continually offering provocations, but it’s also never less than thoroughly absorbing. 

May December is released in select UK cinemas on November 17. It will then stream on Netflix in the US from December 1 and on Sky Cinema/NOW in the UK from December 8.

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Emily Murray
Entertainment Editor

As Entertainment Editor at GamesRadar, I oversee all the online content for Total Film and SFX magazine. Previously I've worked for the BBC, Zavvi, UNILAD, Yahoo, Digital Spy and more.