Read the comments on a news story any time you see a “hot” older woman having assaulted a young boy. You’ll see loads of people claiming that it’s ridiculous to treat this as a crime. “In my time, this was our fantasy!”
May December has zero patience for this toxic, abusive, nonsense narrative, and spends two hours showing us how absolutely no glossy perception will change the fact this is a way lives are utterly destroyed by child sex abuse.
The actual experience of watching May December is mostly one where you see a monster of a woman become mirrored by another monster of a woman, and it’s done with such high camp – from the soapy piano to the lingering angles and hilarious choices of scene cuts – that it’s easy to get lost in how much of this is just Natalie Portman vs Julianne Moore.
They’re riveting when they go head-to-head, and they provide all the entertainment that brings us back to psychological suspense as a genre. These two give us every ounce of complex-horrible-milf drama that pulls us back again and again to the likes of Gone Girl and Girl on the Train. The long dialogues with a strong focus on slowly unspooling these characters’ glass houses of self-identification is riveting enough to make me giggle-clap.
And then May December gives us Joe.
Joe is in his mid-thirties now, the same age as when he was assaulted, and the children he had with his abuser are all flying away from home. Joe has grown up to be a painfully nurturing soul. He is only allowed to exist in support of Moore’s needs, but he’s found ways to love deeply elsewhere; his protective adoration for his children is as heartwarming as eviscerating, he’s taken a job in medicine, and he nurtures monarch butterfly eggs to adulthood.
We’re given no time to wonder if Joe is okay. He’s not. Moore speaks to him in a clipped, demanding, motherly way, which turns into simpering babygirl talk the instant things aren’t going her way. Joe barely knows how to talk, period, because he’s internalized the fact that he’s not supposed to. He follows Moore’s precise commands from the moment we see him, and that’s before he spends a while crying on the roof because he’s not sure if he’s parenting his son or traumatizing him. Joe has genuinely no idea. He doesn’t know how adults and kids are supposed to interact, but he fights to nurture because Joe wants to protect others from what happened to him.
Julianne Moore’s character was 36 when she began grooming and ultimately assaulted 13-year-old Joe, who was picking up hours at the pet store where she worked. Moore’s character uses a lot of justifications for this: Moore has always been “young” for her age, and Joe has always been “old” for his age as the primary driving factors. This is overwhelmingly a racialized valuation. White women are allowed to be little girls for basically ever, but most others (especially men of color) are burdened with the costs of adulthood immediately.
Bringing in Natalie Portman’s character – an actress who will portray Moore, and is now researching her – isn’t really what starts making everything fall apart, but maybe she makes it happen faster. I’d say it’s not because of what she’s revealing. Everyone in town knows what’s going on, no matter how broadly they smile about it. They carry on the story that everything is great with Moore’s family. They pity her for being so mentally frail at best, and loathe her for being a manipulative psychopath at worst, but everyone is letting the illusion of a happy family persist.
No, everything is already on a trajectory toward disaster before Portman arrives. Joe’s texting a friend about leaving. The kids are leaving too. Moore doesn’t have a real career. Things are fraying. Portman only makes it go faster because she’s on a self-servicing mission of her own. She claims that she’s looking for some massive truth. In fact, she’s looking for an identity to adopt. She begins mimicking Moore so closely, Portman begins drooling over casting photos for the children who might play Joe, and herself becomes a continuation of the abuse against a now-adult man who still hasn’t ever had a relationship on his terms.
Portman is just as insecure in her sense of self as Moore, just as broken. Without an apparent identity of her own, Portman seems like a vampire getting her first drink of blood in months whenever she can slurp up another of Moore’s characteristics. She’s not here to show the skeletons in Moore’s closet. She’s here to build a version of herself that is powerful and will use other people.
The tension surrounding everything builds and builds. It’s obvious things are going to go bad to a nail-biting degree, but where? How? Moore’s character may have a history as an abuse victim. She has a gun. Portman and Melton got close. Moore’s first son is circling. The graduation is coming. The storm is here.
This grand build-up leads where?
Joe’s most mature butterfly ecloses and leaves. His twins graduate high school. He’s relieved he got them to adulthood without the same extent of abuse he suffered – in that they had childhoods at all, period – and we have to cry with him.
And we see Natalie Portman filming her flick. It’s low-budget and tacky. The grandeur collapses into a woman repeating the same seductive line in a baby-lisp to a young model. She put all this work into preparing herself for a flick that ends up with the “hottest” (??!?!?) of young boys as Joe, and she won’t move on from the seduction scene. She wants to keep doing it and redoing it, living in that moment forever of being perfectly powerful, completely powerful, and feeling zero guilt about it.
It’s masterful to have us dragged along, enjoying such a soapy, pulpy presentation of characters by two actresses, and then exposed to Melton’s incredibly human performance. May December suggests you might also enjoy the drama these women are enjoying. Is this not fun? But then it points to him and says, “That’s the cost.” It never flinches away from the fact that our tabloid drama comes at the expense of an actual human life. The news stories, the biopics, the miniseries, the movies running for awards, the ravenous hunger artists have to make others’ trauma their gain. At the center of it all is a man whose innocence was stolen and he is not okay about it. And we don’t really get relief on that point. We don’t know he’s going to be okay later. He’s probably not.
This director previously brought us Velvet Goldmine, and I wouldn’t have thought he could create such a masterpiece again, but I’ll be damned if he didn’t pull it off with this one.