Insecurities Take Center Stage in the Campy May December

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix.

If you Google “best campy movies,” a plethora of lists will populate and few of them have an iota of understanding of what it means to be campy. It feels that we’ve broadened the definition of camp, resulting in the misclassification of many films. Moreover, using camp as an excuse for a movie’s or a performance’s shortcomings has gone too far—sometimes things are bad because they are downright bad. Campiness only works when there’s intentionality and self-awareness, just like in Todd Haynes’ uncomfortable, bold, and surprisingly funny melodrama May December.

So, when we talk about intentionality, it has to start with the foundation of the movie. What is the basis of this campy vibe the director is trying to create? In May December—opening in limited theatrical release on November 17 and Netflix on December 1—Haynes has a sturdy set-up. In fact, he has more than one. One aspect is the sensationalized Mary Kay Letourneau-esque tabloid story about an inappropriate relationship between a woman in her mid-30s and a teenage boy. This itself would’ve been enough to justify the campiness of this film but Haynes takes it one step further. May December isn’t solely about the tabloid, it’s about a method actress who visits and studies this notorious couple years later in anticipation of playing the woman in an independent movie—sorry, a complex and human story. With both these layers in play, the campiness is more than justified.

As I mentioned before, intentionality is only one part of it. There has to be a self-awareness that the narrative employs for it to work. Otherwise, you’re in for a tedious treat of schlock and annoyance. It’s not just the narrative, it includes the performances, cinematography, editing, background score, tone, just about every aspect of the movie. When May December begins there’s an odd sheen to the movie you’re not used to seeing. It’s almost like the motion-smoothing look of many soap operas. Then the score kicks in and, no, it’s not the Alexander Desplat or John Williams or frequent Haynes collaborator Carter Burwell soft-spoken music you’d expect. It’s exclusively the dramatic and hilariously over-the-top score from The Go-Between by Michel Legrand. 

Gracie sits calmly with Joe (Charles Melton) outside as she embraces him.
Julianne Moore and Charles Melton in May December. Photo: courtesy of Netflix.

The opening scene is set 24 years after Gracie (Julianne Moore) and Joe’s (Charles Melton) scandalous relationship came to light. They’re preparing for a BBQ and everything seems normal—perhaps a bit too normal. Gracie opens the fridge and fears she may not have enough hot dogs for the BBQ. Surely, she’ll react in a perfectly normal way, right? If you consider the camera jarringly zooming into Gracie opening the fridge and exclaiming, “I don’t have enough hot dogs!” as the comic score hits normal, then yes. This is camp done right. This is an assured and confident director who’s hitting on all cylinders in crafting this dark dramedy. I burst out laughing at the hot dog line and was fully along for the ride.

Haynes is somehow able to blend the comedic and melodramatic tones with the inherent ickiness of the subject at hand and, simultaneously, tell a profound story about human nature and insecurity. I’m not sure how he was able to do it so successfully because if May December veers too hard into comedy or melodrama, for example, it loses all its effectiveness. It’s masterful work on Haynes’ end to have a tight hold on the tone. It’s not all frivolous though. This is an incredibly thought-provoking movie with complicated themes. 

Elizabeth (Natalie Portman), the actress, is very methodical in her approach to playing Gracie. She’s so precise in trying to get every one of Gracie’s minor ticks (literally, she tries to master Gracie’s lisp) in addition to understanding her backstory and what led her to this point in her life. Elizabeth’s dedication to her craft is a result of her insecurity. She knows she’s talented but has to make sure the shot they get is perfect. While her presence shakes up the Atherton-Yoo household, she is shaken when she sees how nonchalant and idyllic Gracie’s life is.

Elizabeth looks outside a window as she prepares to learn to play Gracie in a movie.
Natalie Portman as Elizabeth Berry in May December. Photo: courtesy of Netflix.

There isn’t a shroud of external insecurity from Gracie even after committing such a heinous act. Elizabeth finds out that even when the police arrested Gracie when she and Joe were caught in the back of a pet shop, she thought the authorities would let her go since she and Joe were in love. Gracie lives in a bubble that should be bursting every day when she wakes up next to Joe but her inability to let these insecurities get to her is something Elizabeth can’t comprehend. Elizabeth hasn’t gone to jail or committed a crime or stolen the innocence of a child, yet she demands numerous retakes of a simple scene because she knows she can do better. Her task isn’t hard because she has to copy Gracie’s voice or portray a literal criminal—it’s hard because she has to play someone who can confidently say that she’s secure. 

It’s incredibly uncomfortable to watch this unfold. As a viewer, you resonate with Elizabeth because you’re baffled at Gracie’s exterior coolness. You’ll be squirming when Gracie mentions she first met 13-year-old Joe because he was best friends with her son or when she casually says that both her twins with Joe and her grandchild will be graduating high school at the same time, and there isn’t an ounce of a quiver or hesitancy from her. It’s icky but Haynes, in some way, makes it so funny. It elicits a “this is so awful but I can’t help but laugh at the absurdity” type of reaction that very few movies can do. Sometimes the laughs come from the score hitting in at the most random times, where the characters perform the simplest tasks. Again, this is all purposeful in creating a campy environment. 

May December, with all its camp, still has an emotional center to it and it all comes from Melton’s character Joe. When we first meet him, he seems like your typical suburban dad. Of course, you’re taken aback by the age gap and the impetus of his relationship with Gracie, but at one point he even mentions that he doesn’t get why he’s portrayed as a victim. Similar to Gracie, though, Joe hasn’t reckoned with his insecurities that stem from not coming to terms with the horrific nature of his relationship. Elizabeth, at times, isn’t interested in understanding Gracie but rather is more enticed by Joe. She sees repression and unpacked trauma in him and she knows she can use that to make her performance/movie better. 

Joe stands on his balcony, cooking on the BBQ as he looks down.
Charles Melton is sensational as Joe in in May December. Photo: courtesy of Netflix.

Melton’s performance, intentionally, is very subdued and quiet in essentially the first two-thirds of the movie. Once Elizabeth starts to crack him in the final third and gets him to talk, Melton almost steals the show (I’ll explain the almost in a bit). He has some heartbreaking flourishes in this portion of the movie, including a scene where he smokes weed with his son and you find out Joe has never smoked weed before. This is where the severity of this melodrama you’re watching hits hard. Joe never got to be a kid and went from being an eighth grader to being an adult immediately. He never got the experiences that are pertinent in growing up and for a long time just kept all those feelings internal. I don’t think May December needed the whole butterfly subplot with his character, especially when Melton is flat-out amazing. I never thought a Riverdale actor could go toe-to-toe with Moore and Portman, but he does it with ease. It’s one of the best performances of the year and should absolutely be in the Best Supporting Actor conversation.

It’s a lot on Melton’s shoulders to carry the majority of the emotional weight of the movie since Haynes focuses the melodrama on Moore and the campiness on Portman. May December does not work without these incredible self-aware performances. If Moore and Portman aren’t in on the joke or are not on the same wavelength as Haynes, this is a tonal disaster. Thankfully, these always-great actresses are fully game for anything Haynes throws at them and you can tell they are having an absolute blast with these characters. 

Moore ended up having less screen time than I thought she would (it may seem like a two-hander but this is a very traditional supporting role) but she does not waste a single minute of screen time. She’s worked with Haynes many times and can do his version of melodrama in her sleep. Gracie is a person we should be disgusted with and Moore is able to add humanity to her. Instead of seeing her exclusively as a monster, we bear witness to a broken person living in a false reality. Moore’s line deliveries are golden and she has terrifically sassy chemistry with Portman. I mentioned the unbelievable hot dog line, but she gets multiple scenes in May December hysterically crying in bed over the simplest thing and it all works due to Moore’s commitment to nailing the tone.

For as fantastic as Melton and Moore are, this is Portman’s movie from the moment she shows up on screen. I’m not going to mince words: this is one of the five best performances I’ve seen this year, regardless of gender. It’s been a rough go of movies since 2016’s Jackie for Portman but her turn as Elizabeth shows that, in capable hands, she’s one of the best actresses of her generation. I was mesmerized by this transfixing performance, specifically with the stuff Portman does discreetly in the background. Elizabeth is a satirical character spoofing on method acting and being pretentious and Portman commits hard to the bit. When studying Gracie, you can see subtle things Portman does—learning how to move her mouth like Gracie, how to stand like her, taking notes, seeing how her hair falls—and it is magnificent. Even when Portman is in the background, your attention naturally gravitates to her.

Elizabeth looks directly at the camera as she delivers a monologue as Gracie.
Natalie Portman delivers a show stopping monologue in May December. Photo: courtesy of Netflix.

The external aspects of Portman’s performance are as good as the internal aspects. Her dedication to acting is laugh-out-loud hilarious (since you know some real actors are just like this) and the lengths to which she goes will have your jaw on the floor. Watch for the scene where she goes to visit the back of the pet shop and you’ll see what I mean. There are two monologues, however, that capture the greatness of the performance. In one, Elizabeth goes to Joe and Gracie’s twins’ high school and visits an acting class. One of the kids—trying to be a smart aleck—asks her about doing sex scenes. As an adult, you think she’d take the higher road, give a simple answer, and move on. This is Elizabeth Berry you’re dealing with, and she answers with an equal sense of conviction and pretension to which the whole class is speechless, just like you as the viewer. Method acting doesn’t stop at studying the subject, it follows you in all parts of life.

But, the scene of the movie, and one of the best scenes of any movie this year, is a true monologue Portman gives directly to the camera and the viewer. After learning Gracie’s mannerisms, Elizabeth performs a long letter Gracie once sent to Joe as if she were Gracie. Portman gets to do a voice with a lisp and all and this scene encapsulates this whole movie. It’s dramatic, melodramatic, funny, campy, emotional, and just about everything Haynes was planting the seeds of until this moment. The camera work and music complement her delivery to a high degree. After this scene, I was the living embodiment of the Martin Scorsese “This is Cinema” meme. This is what Nicole Kidman means when she says we come to this place for magic—Natalie Portman as Elizabeth Berry is pure magic. 

May December is camp done right, similar to recent releases like Barb and Star Go To Vista Del Mar and Malignant. Those movies are inherently goofy and this one is also quite goofy at times. But, unlike those films, this one has so much more to say thematically than most campy films. It tackles the things that make us insecure and the root of those insecurities as well as diving deep into human nature. Mirrors play an important motif in this movie and serve an important purpose. They reflect us but also give us the ability to change that reflection, sometimes over and over again so that we get that perfect shot. 

Written by Aqib Rasheed

AQIB RASHEED is a staff writer at Film Obsessive. Member of the Chicago Indie Critics and served as the Resident Film Critic for the Loyola Phoenix from 2021-2022. An admirer of movies, old and new, from all over the world. President of the Al Pacino and David Fincher fan clubs.

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