With May December—now in select theaters, and arriving on Netflix Dec. 1—director Todd Haynes crafts an unnerving tonal highwire act. A tale of tabloid romance and artistic truth-finding, it follows TV star Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman) as she shadows the controversial subject she’s set to play on screen, Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore), notorious in her Georgia hometown for her illicit romance with a young teenage boy who she eventually married, the now thirty-something Joe Yoo (Charles Melton). With their three college-aged kids, Gracie and Joe maintain the appearance of a modern All-American family, but one whose façade hides cracked and even broken dynamics, which reveal themselves through powerful performances.
The film’s difficult subject matter draws inspiration from real events, but its self-reflexive fictionalization (i.e. its framing through an actor’s research) allows it to confront thorny questions surrounding its interpersonal framework, which sees a mixed-race Asian family forced into a façade of WASP normalcy in Savannah. Their lives are anything but typical. Joe, the husband to an older woman, associates mostly with fathers who are much older than him too, and Melton sports the character’s smart-casual khaki shorts and neat polos as though they were a uniform—a suburbanite “dad” identity to which he has to conform.
While Portman and Moore engage in their own deliciously catty tête-à-tête—Elizabeth and Gracie use their politeness as disguises to suss each other out—Melton hovers in the backdrop of the film’s initial scenes, as quietly and unobtrusively as possible, albeit with a stiff posture that hints towards his character’s arrested development. When Elizabeth widens her research and begins interviewing Joe, it brings his latent traumas to the surface, between having been seduced by an adult woman at the age of 13, and having been convinced that it was as much his decision as it was Gracie’s.
The characters’ various self-justifications are where the movie finds its awkward, occasionally shocking humor (including the reasons Elizabeth is the role of Grace, and the strangeness of having to perform this story opposite child actors). But when it hunkers down and explores its delicate drama, it does so with explosive precision. The film’s audacious tonal stylings—courtesy of its operatic music, and Moore’s campy, always-on-the-verge-of-tears delivery—create a sense of dramatic unpredictability, which is where Melton’s mostly understated performance is allowed to shine in painful and revelatory ways. The very idea of confronting the past has Gracie reticent, so when Joe’s self-reflections push him to bring up the subject, the subsequent exchange builds in tempo and emotion, as Melton pushes past the character’s hardened exterior to finally try and express the lingering, lifelong discomforts he hasn’t yet managed to put into words.
Watching the wounded little boy in Joe rise to the surface amidst an adult confrontation is exactly the kind of narrative disconnect that makes May December so intriguing. However, the foundation for this intrigue is also built in subtler moments involving the couple’s children: twins Charlie (Gabriel Chung) and Mary (Elizabeth Yu), around whose high school graduation the film is set, and their older sister Honor (Piper Curda), who returns home from college to celebrate.
Mary has it especially rough under Gracie’s watchful eye, between backhanded compliments about her figure, and her mother’s seeming refusal to contextualize these rigid beauty standards as an outgrowth of whiteness. Race almost never comes up in the film, at least not verbally, but its presence hovers over interaction between Gracie and her family. (When Honor returns home, she cuts through Gracie’s condescension, but the damage to Mary seems to be done).
Moore’s ostentatious approach to performance is a prime fixture of several of Haynes’ films (like Safe, Far From Heaven, and Wonderstruck), and here, the filmmaker channels her erraticism into a narrative linchpin. The way Joe, Charlie, Mary, and Honor are forced to wordlessly tiptoe around their mother’s unstable mood swings speaks to a specific kind of white fragility, which weaponizes feminine vulnerability, as Gracie transforms her tears into symbols of victimhood, without recognizing the ripple effects. In the process, her family is forced inadvertently into the role of the silent, diligent model minority—stoic, emotionless East Asian Americans, whose assimilation into white American culture is considered a given.
Joe himself comes from a broken biracial family—a white mother who died years ago, and a Korean father (Kelvin Han Yee), and they were the only Asians in their neighborhood—though apart from one mention of this dynamic, it’s something which Grace doesn’t acknowledge as a part of either Joe’s family history, or her children’s. In fact, it’s hard not to read a subtle racial animus into each of her interactions with the film’s non-white characters, as though her jabs were attempts to absorb them into her own personal vision of American domesticity, one in which race was a non-factor, but one which defaults to whiteness in the process.
However, the film’s most troubling and enlightening parent-child dynamic is arguably that between Joe and Charlie, a relationship that comes down to a single scene in which the duo converses on a rooftop. Melton and Chung play the power dynamics of this scene not as though they were father and son, but as though they were brothers. The characters are only about 18 years apart, and Charlie has had more social experience than Joe (including experimenting with drugs; he rolls Joe his first blunt) and their stilted interactions are eerily reminiscent of the single scene Joe shares with his father.
In both cases, Joe tries desperately to overcome the emotional barriers preventing him from connecting with the older and younger generations of his family. While Charlie is certainly eager for this as well, Joe unfortunately lacks the emotional tools to fully show him paternal care and vulnerability—an emotional crevasse in which Melton crafts his performance, clawing his way out through glances and subtle gestures, and practically screaming beneath a silent, stunted surface.
Melton’s performance is one of the year’s very best, a supporting role that not only magnifies the contours of the story—it illuminates the unseen dimensions of the May December that form Elizabeth and Gracie’s battleground—but also results in a stunningly true-to-life portrait. The way Joe navigates not only living with a woman who once abused him (and who refutes this classification), but reckons with truly loving her regardless, brings forth the tragedy of a child forced into adulthood far too quickly, with a limited understanding of sex, romance, and the world at large, disguised beneath a suave and personable veneer. You wouldn’t look twice at Joe from a distance and think any of this applied to him. But upon a second glance, Melton draws the eye to the parts of Joe that sit most uncomfortably and impatiently, through body language that feels at war with itself, and a collected disposition ready to crumble at any moment.
Published on November 18, 2023