Saturday, December 2, 2023

May December

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Actress Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman) drives to Savannah, Georgia on a mission: to interview Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore) whom she will be portraying in an indie movie. Her arrival becomes the talk of the town due to the rather scandalous storyline involved. Two decades ago, Gracie was caught having sexual relations with a thirteen-year old boy. That boy Joe (Charles Melton) is now married to her and they have three children, the eldest of which was born in prison while she was serving her sentence for their illicit affair. As Elizabeth goes through her field research, the past does not remain buried as she considers every detail to be of utmost importance for her preparation. The question is, how far is she willing to go to nail down Gracie as a character, and will Gracie actually allow her to get too close for comfort to the detriment of her now, seemingly, peaceful family life?

With Oscars under their belt, neither Portman nor Moore has anything left to prove, but maybe this whole canceling each other out just happens when you have two brilliant actors playing characters that are hard to sympathize with. Both Elizabeth and Gracie are creepy AF and make you feel so uncomfortable. If anyone is to gain traction from May December come awards season, it’s definitely going to be Melton, having swept all nominations he got in the early precursors so far. Joe’s silent unravelling is painful to watch as he finally confronts his past with forced maturity that is obviously just put-on, his vulnerability becoming more and more exposed for everyone to see.

Talking about tour de force performances, all three get their own opportunity to shine. Portman’s monologue towards the end which serves as her eureka moment of Elizabeth’s portrayal of Moore’s portrayal of Gracie is a masterclass in acting. The facial expressions, the lisp, the nuances! Creepy satisfaction. Moore’s final lines at the graduation ceremony, on the other hand, couldn’t have delivered a much stronger impact, as if Gracie slapped Elizabeth with mere words. And then of course, Melton has Joe’s breakdown scene on the rooftop while he is high. That alone already merits all the nominations you can throw at this guy.

After making you feel uncomfortable for almost two hours, the ending packs the punch needed to jolt you back into reality by leading you into a confusing zigzag of events where Elizabeth thinks she finally nails the character and Gracie’s truth, only for the latter to throw a curveball in there. The former’s bewildered look at the graduation ceremony, followed by her hesitation at the final filming scene as if all her research was for naught, is a delight to watch because in the end you simply can’t decide who played whom. Was the joke on her all this time? And we thought it’s Gracie who was naive. Or maybe all three of them are.

The only instance we can think of to make May December a less disturbing watch is if you do so through an actor’s perspective. Surely, there are actors out there who go to such lengths just to play a role, no matter how strange the methods involved. The danger in this is that people might just end up believing that Elizabeth is just Portman playing Portman playing Elizabeth, which is an understandable hazard in narratives about actors. Given how we do not get much background about Elizabeth aside from some brief anecdotes she herself narrates, it is quite easy to fall into that meta acting-Inception trap.

On the other hand, it also piques your curiosity to think how Moore, who is actually the one portraying a character loosely based on a well-documented real life person, did her preparation for the role. While it couldn’t have been the way Elizabeth does in the film since the inspiration for the role died in 2020, it triggers some kind of curiosity as to how these actors prepare to play such characters. Or perhaps we can just conclude that acting, as a profession, can get really weird. In the end, May December is uncomfortable and voyeuristic, but you simply don't know whether it's intentional or it's just you.

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