This essay on May December contains spoilers.
They say if a child falls, you have to remain calm. If you scream or panic, the child will feed off of your anxiety. But if you tell the child they’re okay, that it’s just a skinned knee, to get up, then their reaction will be tempered as well.
I wonder if this still applies when a child’s knee is skinned to the bone.
The poster for Todd Haynes’ masterful new film May December features overlapping close-ups of its famous female leads. Julianne Moore in the foreground, blonde hair and fair skin popped with the makeup routine we witness in a pivotal scene; Natalie Portman behind her, mimicking her facial expression, encroaching like a predator or a witness.
They are the film’s competing forces, the two halves of its piquant Persona. Each actress, each character, is the star of her story; main character syndrome taken to its most extreme, most amoral conclusion. And yet the depth of the film, the brilliance of the film, is found in its supporting cast, especially in Charles Melton’s Joe.
May December is about an actress — Natalie Portman’s Elizabeth Berry — who infiltrates a small community in Savannah, Georgia to research her next role. She wants to understand, to embody, Julianne Moore’s Gracie Atherton-Yoo, a woman who two decades earlier began having what she views as an affair with the middle school boy she hired part-time at a pet store. That middle school boy was, is, Joe.
Gracie and Joe were caught in the backroom, Gracie was arrested, and was incarcerated while pregnant. When she was released, she and Joe had two more kids, got married, and shared a life of relative suburban normalcy. Their oldest is now at college and the other two kids are on the precipice of graduating high school when Elizabeth arrives on their doorstep.
Elizabeth’s desire to understand becomes the film’s desire. “What would make a 36-year-old woman have an affair with a seventh grader?” Gracie’s ex-husband bluntly asks. But this isn’t the only question Elizabeth and the film are pondering. Nor is it as simple as, say, who determines what’s immoral? Or, what does it mean to be a victim or a predator? Elizabeth explores these questions, but the film’s conclusion is far more interesting. The movie exists in a world, our world, where abuse is rampant, and people’s relationships to their abusers is varied. It exists in a world where there are human beings behind the over-simplified labels of abuser, predator, and victim.
There are just people, people who make choices, and people who experience the consequences of those choices, and then, to the best of their ability, make choices of their own.
The first time I watched May December, I assumed Joe continued his life with Gracie because to admit the truth of abuse also means to feel that truth. It’s easier to convince yourself that you’re okay and live the life you’ve been given than it is to confront that pain.
But, on a second viewing, I observed more autonomy in Joe. Elizabeth and Gracie both underestimate the choices he’s made since entering adulthood; the audience should not do the same. When Joe’s perspective is valued, his kids entering their own adulthood evolves from an important aspect of the story to the most important.
The tender moments he has alone with his children provide a foil to the rest of the film’s discomfort. The bombastic music that embodies the force of Gracie and Elizabeth gives way to something gentler, like Joe’s butterflies leaving their cocoons.
It becomes clear in these moments that Joe made a sacrifice. Maybe as a teen it was unconscious, but in the passing years an awareness seems to have formed. He chose to bury his emotions, to give even more of himself to Gracie, in order for his kids to have the ease of childhood he himself was denied.
By performing the role of Father and Husband and denying the role of Victim, Joe allowed his kids to feel a normalcy to their very abnormal parents. It’s like an extreme example of couples who stay married for their children — as if being raised by a miserable married couple is better than having parents who are happily divorced. Like that common scenario, the intent is not always matched by the result. Joe and Gracie’s kids do seem fairly okay, but Haynes’ direction, Samy Burch’s script, and the understated performances from Piper Curda, Elizabeth Yu, and Gabriel Chung hold a steady aura of unease within them.
As Joe says during the scene on the roof with his son, it’s not always easy to tell when a parent and child are connecting and when a traumatic memory is being formed. The same way it’s not possible to know if the definite fucked-up-ness of Gracie and Joe’s three kids is more or less severe than if Joe had confronted the reality of his relationship with Gracie when they were young. The film is less concerned with these hypotheticals than it is with the impact of what did, in fact, occur.
Charles Melton is remarkable in May December, not only because at times he embodies a man frozen in adolescence, but because at other times he embodies the opposite. He never feels like he’s in his mid-30s — he is sometimes 14, sometimes 54. Elizabeth’s arrival is one catalyst for Joe; his kid’s graduating is another. Now that he feels he can drop the performance of a much older man, he’s able to start to grow beyond the year he met Gracie. As he stands alone, sobbing during graduation, his tears feel like relief. He did it. He allowed his kids to have the life he wanted for them. Decades later, he is finally free.
When May December was first announced, many assumed Portman and Moore would be the titular months in a lesbian romance. While that is not the case, queerness is still important to the film. Yes, there’s a queerness to Haynes’ aesthetic and interests — the discordant forms, the affection for melodrama, the focus on sexual taboos. Like Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, there is also a sexuality that hovers between its collapsing female leads. But there is also an importance to the film’s one overtly queer character: Georgie Atherton played by Cory Michael-Smith, Gracie’s son from her first marriage.
Georgie is uncomfortable, abrasive, and a bit of a dick. He’s also the only person in the movie who refuses to perform. He’s a musician, not an actor, and while Haynes’ other work has often explored the performativity of musical artists, Georgie is committed to being his messy self on the small stage of a local brunch spot. Maybe it’s this refusal to craft a persona that’s prevented greater success. Or, maybe, most teen musicians just never make it big — whether or not their mom claims to have fallen in love with their classmate.
Georgie says Gracie and Joe’s affair ruined his life. He certainly seems to be the least happy character in the film — at least on the surface. He also refuses to buy into the narrative that Gracie and Joe are now a normal couple undeserving of judgment. Every other character has a disquietude simmering below; Georgie is determined to make his own disquietude very loud.
This is the role queer people often play in the world. By questioning our place within nuclear normalcy, we force others to do the same. This is where so much hate is born. People are clutching to the stories they’ve told themselves, stories of dull have-to’s like Gracie’s first marriage or traumatic have-to’s like Joe’s. Queer people reveal a truth many aren’t ready to accept: Maybe these have-to’s are more like supposed-to’s. Maybe we can say no.
There’s something beautiful about the sacrifice Joe makes for his children. It’s a sacrifice akin to generations of queer people who have stayed closeted for their families. It’s a sacrifice akin to out queer people who adjust their words, pick their battles, and quiet their intensity, so their families don’t have to question their normative lives.
But this beauty, this poignancy, this sacrifice is one bad choice in a world with nothing but bad choices. What if the love Joe felt for his kids was expressed without their father having to silence his humanity? What if Georgie’s honesty was paired with an ability to move on? What if Gracie’s social confinement and own possible experience of abuse didn’t manifest in the abuse of another? What if our society had a solution for abuse other than incarcerating a pregnant woman and then letting her abuse continue with splashy tabloid coverage?
Queerness alone is not the answer; honesty alone is not the answer. Just like love, or the perception of love, is not a sufficient explanation for taking the life of a young boy. But queerness can model a much-needed complexity. There is a world of possibility between absolute sacrifice and absolute solipsism. We must perceive others to be as human as ourselves. We must perceive ourselves to be as human as others. We don’t have to pretend that we’re perfect. We don’t even have to pretend that we’re okay. We just have to try for others and try for ourselves.
What if when a child falls we didn’t scream or tell them to get up? What if instead we talked to them? What if instead we listened to them? What if when an adult hurts us we talked to them? What if we listened to the truths buried deep within us?
May December is a work of questions. It is at once a film of immense complexity and immense clarity. It is committed to its characters — some who are trying to be better, some who are not, all of whom are human.
Even within the falsest performance, there will always be truth.
May December is now streaming on Netflix.