“May December” and Performance as Sacrifice

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.

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Drew Burnett Gregory

Drew is a Brooklyn-based writer, filmmaker, and theatremaker. She is a Senior Editor at Autostraddle with a focus in film and television, sex and dating, and politics. Her writing can also be found at Bright Wall/Dark Room, Cosmopolitan UK, Refinery29, Into, them, and Knock LA. She was a 2022 Outfest Screenwriting Lab Notable Writer and a 2023 Lambda Literary Screenwriting Fellow. She is currently working on a million film and TV projects mostly about queer trans women. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

Drew Burnett has written 550 articles for us.

19 Comments

    • The piece is interesting until it tries to pull “queerness” into the subject. A big stretch and lame based on one sentence about Georgie giving someone a handjob as a youth. First, I hate the term queer and it’s intrusion into popular culture-like saying “gay” is not woke enough (barf) or the assumption that gay acts as young people are not common place among straight or questioning youth (they are) Stick to the subject as a journalist without bringing your agenda into it. It’s harmful to the gay community and, in this instance, on several levels.

  1. This is a beautiful piece, Drew.

    I’d decided not to watch May December due to the subject matter (simply that I feel I may find it too uncomfortable or potentially triggering), but what you’ve written here makes me question that decision.

  2. Normally I really like reading the media essays here, but this one was painful as a survivor, Joe does not have to embrace the label victim he simply is one, to imply it’s strong of him to reject that label is wrong, and a child and an adult did not “hook up” the child was assulted

  3. When I was a teenager I instigated abusive situations with adults, but then, I was abused as a child. I only realized the full extent of the damage to my life, my choices, my health, when I was in my 50’s. The realization was frankly appalling. But, thank the Goddess, I had done a lot of work on myself to see my road travelled from a vantage point of acceptance and not trauma.

    So I know from personal experience that desire really obliterates judgment for a long, long time, sometimes forever. And that desire really is a tender subject.

  4. I really don’t understand at all how you can condone this film, or even consider writing a review of it, let alone construe it as an interesting approach to “complexities” of predatoriness and ‘desire’. Queerness or no queerness, why are we paying any attention at all to a film which semi-centers around a female ped*phile who abused a 12 year old (a literal child) and then groomed him into a marriage? They were not “having an affair” and it’s actually beyond me how you could even type that out in this article without vomiting. Why are we constantly constantly constantly constantly letting women ped*philes off the hook by construing films like these “interesting”? This film would NEVER fly if the perpetrator was a man. Absolutely never, and if you disagree you are flat-out lying. The fetishism, spectacle, and fascination for women like Letourneau is not only to spit in the face of victims of women ped*s, but it’s also incredibly distasteful and lacks any form of interesting analytical rigour. It’s easy, it’s lazy, and it’s sad. The constant reach for the “it’s taboo/subversive AND there’s a vague dynamic of copying/desire between two women, that must mean it’s queer!!!” is such low-hanging fruit.

    The fact that you claim this film makes us question the “over simplified labels of victim and abuser” is actually nauseating to me. It’s bizarre. This entire article is, start to end, childhood s*xual abuse apologism. Most of all I am furious reading this, but I am also incredibly sad. It’s a constant reminder (along with other disgusting films like “Call me by your name”) that we do not support or protect survivors of CSA in the queer community. Art, film analysis, and “intellectual entertainment” is always more important than solidarity.

    Let me make it clear again: a 36-year old r*ping a child is not “s*xual taboos” or “an affair”. Nope, not even if she’s a woman. Call it what it is.

    • I did not see this movie because I am not interested in it. However, looking into it, the abuse is definitely not portrayed as okay. They are not able to have an adult relationship, Gracie doesn’t respect Joe, and Joe is extremely fucked up by all of this and obviously doesn’t want to be married to Gracie anymore. It seems like the movie is basically about how society has a weird fascination with female predators and cares more about the freak show aspect than the harm done to the victim. Someone could not make the exact same movie where the perpetrator was a man, because of the specific dynamics involved, but I don’t think it would be that much less accepted to make a movie where someone was abused by a man as a child, later married that man once it was legal while going along with his narrative that this was okay, and then was not okay because this isn’t okay. A character doesn’t have to agree that they were abused for the movie to be portraying abuse as abuse.

      The article referred to the abuse as abuse, and Drew repeatedly referred to it this way and talked about it like it was incredibly damaging and traumatic. When she talked about complicating labels, it was pretty clear to me that she was talking about how the archetypes of victim and abuser are sometimes too simple to accurately reflect real victims and abusers, in a way that does not make the abuse okay. For example, a wife with a violent husband who doesn’t believe she’d be able to keep him from getting custody of the children might deliberately stay with him to try to protect the kids. This doesn’t mean she’s consenting to being abused! It does mean that “she’s too broken to know she can leave” is not a model that describes all wives with violent husbands, and that if someone wants to actually help people in those situations, it’s going to be more complicated than just repeating that domestic violence is bad. Sometimes abusers can have good qualities or were abused themselves (my own family has multiple generations of abuse, although the abuse wasn’t sexual). Pretending abusers can’t be complicated isn’t pro-survivor, it’s just another voice telling survivors they can’t consider themselves to have been abused if their abuser isn’t a cartoon villain that they can straightforwardly hate.

      I don’t think she talks about the copying being queer? There’s one mention of the leads having sexual tension, but she mostly talked about the way the victim and the son from the first marriage were portrayed.

      Please don’t censor words relating to triggering topics, it makes it more difficult for people who are using word filtering software to avoid getting triggered.

      • Hi. You say “The article referred to the abuse as abuse, and Drew repeatedly referred to it this way and talked about it like it was incredibly damaging and traumatic”. This is simply not true. Drew has now changed some of the language in the piece, but was initially referring to it as “an affair” between the child and the adult. I read it in it’s original form, do not lie to me.
        I implore you to remember that making a film that makes some meta commentary on how people find female pedophiles ‘interesting’ (the constant asking ‘why’ would SHE do that, in a way that is not asked of men) is not the clever tool you seem to think it is. Making a film with that meta commentary is not a way for Todd Haynes to sneak around the topic to ultimately come out as the good guy who criticizes the abuse. He’ll make millions out of this, ironically drawing a huge audience BECAUSE THEY FIND THE ABUSE FASCINATING. The majority of the world is not literate at all in media, they’ll go and watch it and find it fascinating/intellectually stimulating/funny/grotesque/ or god forbid even ‘hot’.
        You also say “Someone could not make the exact same movie where the perpetrator was a man, because of the specific dynamics involved” – oh, the difference in power dynamic? Do you think there’s a difference in power dynamics between a boy child and an adult woman, vs. a child of any gender and an adult man? Hint: there is no difference. The power dynamic of adult-child trumps any gender power dynamics, in all circumstances.

        You also say “I don’t think she talks about the copying being queer? There’s one mention of the leads having sexual tension, but she mostly talked about the way the victim and the son from the first marriage were portrayed.” I never said that Drew said that copying was queer. It’s was more a comment on how these boring and over-used queer women tropes are sought after like gold in queer-coded films, such tropes being e.g copying, obsession, etc. Drew talks about there being sexual tension between them, indeed, and that sexual tension in the film is partially related to the actress going to come and study the pedophile and her behaviours. Like I said in my original comment, I find all and any interest in a sexual tension between the actress and the pedophile completely irrelevant due to the film topic. Giving this film any metaphorical airtime at all is CSA apologism. Films like this one, that capitalize off of the issue that it claims to critique, should be a crime. Is Haynes donating any of the earnings from this film to charities for CSA survivors, do you think?

        Thanks for letting me know re: censoring. Wont be doing it going forward.

        • The original version of the article did use the word “affair”, but also a lot of descriptors specifically relating to abuse and trauma. I agree with Drew’s decision to change her wording, but I don’t think using language that reflects that the characters viewed this as a relationship negates that it was abusive and traumatic or suggests that there was necessarily something redeeming about it.

          By “dynamics” I was not referring to the dynamic between victim and abuser, which I don’t think would be significantly different depending on gender. (I think outside of situations where CSA is involved, other things can complicate the adult/child power dynamic – there was a good article on this site a little while ago about The Haunting of Bly Manor and class – but that’s neither here nor there.) I was referring to the dynamic between the abuser and society. You can’t make a movie about how society goes completely insane when a woman commits CSA if the abuser in your movie is a man.

          Generally speaking, what relationship do you think artists who create works about traumatic things that can happen to people should have to the people who’ve been through that trauma in real life?

  5. I don’t know how to respond to this review or to the comments. I just have a few random thoughts.

    I want to appreciate the nuance. And I think maybe I do. But as the survivor of childhood sexual abuse (I was 11 and 12), I also had a pretty visceral negative reaction to reading that an adult “had an affair” and “hooked up” with a middle school aged child.

    Reading the review closely, I don’t believe that Drew thinks Gracie’s treatment of Joe was ok or anything other than abuse.

    “ 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.”

    I wish I were in a better place to interact with this. It’s hard to be nuanced about abuse when there’s still so much denial that it exists.

    • Thank you for this thoughtful comment. I struggled in writing this piece finding the balance between the obvious abuse being discussed and accurately representing how the characters view that abuse.

      I’ve edited some of the language to hopefully strike that balance more effectively.

    • I don’t understand why we should be nuanced about abuse? As much as I am a proponent of nuance in my political activism, being deeply invested in e.g restorative justice and NVC as methods of non-carceral inter-personal AND collective healing, I think the attempt of Drew here to put nuance itself on a pedestal is really misguided and quite sad (and I think you’re falling into the trap too, cleo). Being ‘nuanced’ about s*xual abuse of children is not a moral high ground, it’s just apologism shrouded in a shroud of pseudo-intellectual appropriated political theory.
      We should not be ‘nuanced’ about abuse towards children, and I don’t understand why you want to be nuanced about it.
      Like you quote: “ 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.” – firstly, people’s relationships to their abusers being varied; like yeah, cause people get groomed and manipulated and trapped in e.g emotional and economic abuse. People may have intimate relationships and positive memories of their abusers (e.g parents or siblings). This is not evidence of a complicated victim/abuser dynamic, it’s just evidence of dissociation, displacement behaviours, and chronic crushed senses of self-worth, which is a consequence of CPTSD. Secondly, there being ‘human beings behind the over-simplified labels of abuser, predator, victim” – what would that be, then? There’s a nice person behind every p*dophlile (i.e abuser and predator)? Sorry, couldn’t care less. Go to a rehabilitation centre far away from children and work on yourself. There’s a human being behind the victim? As in, they may have complex feelings about the abuse? Yeah, see my point above about the brainwashing death spiral of being a victim of CSA.
      Obviously you also know a lot of this already cleo, I’m mostly responding to this to 1. let you know that you do not need to have ‘nuanced’ thoughts about CSA and p*dophiles. 2. So that hopefully Drew sees this and can rethink whether this piece was helpful, kind, relevant, analytically sharp, positively contributing to the queer community discourses, respectful, etc.

      • Thank you How. I think we agree on more than we disagree on. I’ve certainly lived through a lot of what you describe. I’ve been working on healing from incest for a long, long time – over 30 years – I’m not the only victim in my family but I am the only one who’s been actively healing.

        I do honestly think that allowing in some nuance in how we talk about CSA is necessary or we won’t be able to solve this as a society. Not nuance into whether or not abuse is acceptable (it’s absolutely not) but nuance into how we deal with predators and how we protect children from them. Because what we’re doing now doesn’t seem to be making children safer. I’m not particularly interested in humanizing predators, but dehumanizing them doesn’t seem to have made much of a difference.

        I don’t care anything about this movie – it seems distasteful to me. I think it’s good that smart people like Drew are thinking and writing and challenging themselves to think about it. But I also see why you and others can’t welcome it. It’s a precarious time.

  6. Thank you for this thoughtful and beautifully written review. I think it’s an incredible movie that tackles a difficult subject while affording humanity to the central victim, and your review does the same. I don’t think the movie ever loses sight of the great wrong that was done to Joe, and again neither does this review. I think it’s necessary to tell these kinds of stories and to grapple with the extent that child sexual abuse is normalised in our culture, which is what this film is doing. Yes the film does not have flashing text stating that Gracie is a predator, but it provides the viewer with enough information to make that clear.

  7. I’m struggling to understand how this is being viewed as a queer film at all. Because there’s one sub character who as a throw away mentions being gay? That does not a queer film make.

    That point aside, the stir in the comments is also confusing to me. One, because films aren’t about perfect people, they never have been. Films are about flawed people, to every degree that they exist. So being offended by a film portraying bad people as they exist is an insane stance. But forget that, because everyone, Drew included, seem to be missing the biggest problem here—this is a BAD movie.

    Moore and Portman do what they can with the material, but even a couple A-listers can’t make up for a poorly conceived and constructed film. As a viewer you keep waiting for some amount of depth or story to emerge, but it never comes. It’s clearly a movie trying SO hard to be a capital M **Movie** specifically a mysteriously subtle indie movie. But in trying to be so much it fails to be anything at all, or tell any specific story. Every now and then they scratch the surface of an idea, a tension, an unspoken truth, but then they turn their back on it and run in a shiny new direction. They try so hard to manufacture tension with an unnerving (and ear bleed inducing) score, but that tension isn’t present in the story or between characters, so it simply reads as annoying.

    The audience score on rotten tomatoes is dropping like a rock as more people view this one. And it’s not, and far and I can tell, for any concern with the subject matter (as has blown up here for some reason) but instead, due to the absolute lack of substance this try-hard movie possesses.

    I’m baffled this film is being given the time of day, and even more so that any critic would sing its praises.

  8. lol I am so tired of talking to other gay people about movies. the level of hostility towards them in general is just So Much – it’s like the intensity of our moralization about basically everything in the world is affecting our ability to just like, enjoy a movie and talk about it? everything is either Yas Queen Perfect or a No Good Very Bad Not Gay Utter Trash, like, I’m tired. (I’m not talking about the review here, but the comments on the article & social media)

    I thought the movie was really good, and enjoyed it more on a re-watch. I don’t personally agree with Drew’s interpretation re: Joe – I think it’s really interesting to think of the ways Joe has asserted himself in his situation, but I’m more taken with the original read she proposes: that it’s mostly a story about Joe coming to recognize everything that he’s lost, and that what happened to him was truly, deeply fucked up. even on my re-watch, that’s what stood out to me most – the juxtaposition of his conversation w/ Elizabeth on their walk (“I wanted it”) versus his agonizing confrontation with Gracie later (“Maybe I was too young.”) Idk as someone who was also groomed (albeit at an older age), I thought this movie really beautifully illustrated how high the walls you build around your understanding are – how you can be truly miserable, living a half life, but continually justify it to yourself using the rhetoric of your abuser – then once there’s one crack in the foundation, it’s like almost no time at all before the whole story falls apart. I do think, though, that reading matches maybe more the real story -the interviews with Villi Fualaau where he talks explicitly about wanting to give his kids the two-parent household he didn’t have.
    But as soon as I talk about the real people, I get uncomfortable. I appreciate the way Haynes using Elizabeth the voyeur as a distancing narrative, but it is still a little tough for me that this is a story about real people, that takes great pains to match their lives (even incorporating specific dialogue from Mary Kay & Villi’s interviews).

    I also didn’t have *any thoughts* about Georgie being gay, but really love the way Drew brought out that dimension – the gay person who refuses to play nice, to reconcile, to let it all be glossed over.

  9. The author here has forgotten we live in a society that conflates homosexuality and p*doph!lia. The marketing of the film had heavy homoerotic overtones between the two women and the actual film itself plays with those themes. This film barely veils its encouragement of these stereotypes. What a strange and disappointing film review.

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