Wednesday, November 15, 2023

An actress tackles a sensational story

  Gracie was 36 when she slept with Joe. He was 13. 
  She went to jail for her choice and gave brith to a baby (his) while incarcerated. May December,  a movie about the aftermath of their affair, begins 20 years after Joe and Gracie made national news.
   The age difference disturbs, of course, but equally important, is the fact that Joe's marriage deprived him of the opportunity to grow into the role of husband and father. Joe and Gracie, who live in Savannah, Ga., have three kids, all older than Joe was when their life-changing affair began.
   In what feels like an attempt to give the story some mind-bending dimension, director Todd Haynes focuses on the arrival of Elizabeth (Natalie Portman), an actress who will play Gracie (Julianne Moore) in a movie that's soon to start filming.
   Elizabeth becomes increasingly insistent as she explores the lives of the characters who lived the story.
   Absorbing and quietly challenging, May December engages us in a pursuit similar to the one Elizabeth undertakes. We're continually trying to process scenes that don't quite compute, a father trying to relate to a teenage son who's going through a stage he never experienced.
     As she tires to nail the character, Elizabeth meets Gracie and her two twins (Gabriel Chung and Elizabeth Yu), teens who are about to graduate from high school, leaving Gracie and Joe (Charles Melton) as empty-nesters. An older daughter — the one born in prison — already has left home.
     Think about your life. Is the person you loved at 17 someone you could have spent the rest of your days with?  We wonder whether Joe and Gracie really love each other or have backed themselves into a corner, trapped into justifying behavior few would condone.
    The screenplay's focus on acting elevates content that easily might have turned trashy. As a result, May December hinges on Portman's performance as an actress who tries to penetrate Gracie's soul, ultimately in shockingly disreputable ways. Can acting be viewed as an invasion of privacy, even an act of aggression?  
   Under the guise of professionalism, Elizabeth also explores the salacious nature of the material. When she visits the stock room in the pet shop where both Gracie and Joe once worked and where they were caught having sex, she allows her imagination to reproduce Gracie's moment of ecstatic abandon. 
     Fortunately, the owner of the pet shop remains otherwise occupied and out of view.
    Portman's performance requires a degree of subtlety and seduction. Initially, she must seduce the audience, asking that we grant her the presumption of professional curiosity. But as the movie develops, Elizabeth's twisted psyche becomes more evident.
   Elizabeth’s quest broadens the movie’s scope: She talks to a variety of Savannah residents, including the man to whom Gracie was married (D.W. Moffett) at the time of her dalliance. She also meets with the lawyer (Lawrence Arancio) who represented Gracie at her trial and with her son (Cory Michael Smith) from her first marriage.
      Questions of control -- Gracie's over Joe and the rest of her family -- are reflected in the way Moore shifts identities: mother, seductress, wife, and lover.  
      Only Melton's Joe seems an innocent participant in a drama he never really controlled. Joe breeds butterflies, an overly obvious symbolic reference to his inability to escape the cocoon of his marriage and blossom into a fully developed adult.
       Should we believe Gracie when, late in the movie, she insists that Joe initiated their sexual relationship? And even if her assertion were true, does it altar the fact that she was an adult and he was still a kid?
      Those familiar with Haynes's work (Far From Heaven and Carol) won't be surprised that Haynes has little interest in sanctioning his characters or generating undue sympathy for Gracie, a woman who, after all, spent time in jail for second-degree rape.
      In the end, May December is as much about the way Haynes and his two principal actresses toy with the story than about the story itself. He provokes us to ask questions that revolve around a central inquiry,  "What becomes of people who have lived through this kind of experience?"
    With a screenplay by Samy Burch and Alex MechanikMay December is more than a trashy TV movie. Viewers may disagree about how much more because Haynes can confound as much as he clarifies, leaving us to wonder whether we're meant to take everything we see at face value.
     Whatever you decide, you may find yourself realizing that in the game Haynes and his cast of characters are playing, no one emerges victorious. 

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