Review by Tatiana Miranda
Todd Haynes is best known for his campy (Velvet Goldmine and Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story) stories about forbidden love (Carol and Far From Heaven), and in his newest flick, May December, both themes are present. Or are they? Probably his most experimental film of recent years, May December teeters the line between serious drama and parody.
The movie follows actress Elizabeth Berry as she visits married couple Gracie Atherton-Yoo and Joe Yoo in preparation for a movie role about their life. As is eventually revealed, in the '90s, 36-year-old Gracie had an affair with 13-year-old Joe. Even after making national headlines and Gracie having Joe's children while in prison, the two got married and attempted to move past their infamous history. That is until Elizabeth arrives and causes the family to rethink the facts of their relationship.
Compared to comedy films about similar subjects — such as Adam Sandler's That's My Boy -- May December understands the seriousness of the situation and instead relies on the absurdity of the characters and their actions as a form of comedy. The first note of this is when, after a mundane statement from Gracie about not having enough hot dogs for their cookout, a dramatic piano score by Marcelo Zarvos interjects. This continues throughout the film, as several inane moments are treated as if they're shocking revelations in a true crime drama.
It takes a while for viewers to determine whether this absurd directorial decision is meant to be taken seriously or not. Long after the credits roll, some are still left wondering whether May December was meant to be a dramatic story about the inhumanity behind true crime biopics or a satire thriller piece similar to the Netflix series The Woman in the House Across the Street from the Girl in the Window.
More than a critique of Gracie's extramarital and extremely illegal relationship with Joe, May December highlights the ridiculousness of how Elizabeth treats the couple for the sake of her career. Similarly to how the main characters never quite condemn Gracie's — or even Elizabeth's — actions, Haynes never gives a decisive answer as to how the audience should feel about the movie as a whole, and what it has to say about the epidemic of true crime biopics and intense method acting.
Due to the film's upcoming release on Netflix, it's likely it will reach an audience affronted by how unseriously it takes itself and its sometimes confusing tonal shifts. While May December is unlikely to become a beloved classic like Carol for this reason, it provides an interesting and experimental critique of the modern Hollywood phenomena of true crime biopics.
May December screened at the 2023 edition of NewFest, which runs October 12-24.