Scene: A beauty salon somewhere in Georgia. A woman with tall, frosted hair is talking with her client.
You’ve heard of Gracie Atherton, right?
Oh, surely you have. She was everywhere in the tabloids. (Hold on, honey. I’m with a customer right now. Darcie over there’ll check you in.) You know, the woman who had that affair with a seventh grader in the back of a pet shop? And then she gave birth to his baby behind bars? And then, when she got out, she and the seventh grader—well, he was much older by then—got married?
Well, believe it or not, Gracie and the kid—well, grown man, now, named Joe Yoo—they’re still married. Yeah, crazy, right? Their two youngest kids, twins, are just about to graduate from high school, in fact. And they’re still living in their hometown of Savannah. Imagine.
(This short enough for you in back? A little shorter? Well, it’s your hair.) Anyway, it turns out there’s a movie on the way about Gracie and Joe. Yeah, a TV movie or something, starring that woman from the vet series. Nora’s Ark or something. Only her name’s not Nora. It’s … Elizabeth something-or-other, but she’s the spitting image of Natalie Portman.
Yeah, Elizabeth something-or-other is going to be playing Gracie, I guess. And—get this—she’s in Savannah right now, spending time with Gracie and Joe. Research, apparently. Wants to ask a lot of questions, see how they’re living their lives, all that Hollywood hoo-ha. Oh, and, of course, to see how Gracie walks and talks and, well, thinks.
(You know what your hair’s just shouting for? Highlights. No, trust me. They’ll look great.) No, I’m not sure if Gracie’s excited about them coming. I don’t know her, you understand. I just know what I’ve read about her. But I can’t imagine that she would be. I mean, why would she want that old story dug up now? When everything seems to be going so well?
Oh, yes. I know Gracie and Joe have dealt with it for decades now. I bet their reasoning is that if they’re going to make a movie anyway, might as well get the details right. But still, feels potentially traumatic, y’know? Digging up all those old skeletons. Stirring up all those emotions. And those Hollywood types—well, they don’t have the boundaries that ordinary folk do, now do they? Who knows what Elizabeth something-or-other might do.
And come to think of it, who knows what Gracie might do, either. A woman who has an affair with a seventh grader? And then goes and marries the kid? Yeah, she doesn’t sound stable.
Not stable at all.
If we’re looking for positive role models in May December, we’ll need to go beyond the two women at the movie’s fore. Indeed, positivity is as rare as a Savannah snowstorm here.
But Joe Yoo, who’s now in his mid-30s, brings a few nice qualities to the table.
In his spare time, Joe watches fix-it shows—and that’s no accident in a movie like this. For most of his life, Joe has been fixing things.
Gracie tells Elizabeth that Joe’s mom died young. He was forced to take care of his family at a pretty early age, forcing Joe to grow up fast. And he still seems to embrace the role of protector and caretaker.
Gracie, for her part, is incredibly high strung, and it’s up to Joe to make her feel safe and cared for when things go wrong. And while he’s probably not the best parent (it’s hard to be a great one when you start at age 14), he cares for the twins in ways that Gracie seems incapable of.
Joe also has a curious hobby: raising monarch butterfly caterpillars. He’s a member of a group that’s determined to turn around the declining monarch butterfly population—and he brags to Elizabeth that monarchs have indeed seen a rebound.
A dog is named Zeus. There’s a reference to an unspecified blood ritual.
The entire film is predicated on a sex scandal involving a 36-year-old woman and a 13-year-old boy. We don’t see any flashbacks, but that “relationship” is never far from our awareness.
We glimpse old tabloid headlines and a few pictures of Gracie and Joe that were taken around the time of their affair. Elizabeth tours the pet shop where many of the encounters took place, and she seems to go through a feigned sexual reverie beside the back door (practicing, it would seem, for a future movie scene).
We learn that Joe was in the same class, and was good friends, with Gracie’s son, Georgie. (The latter says the affair ruined his life.) Gracie’s ex-husband and her lawyer talk to Elizabeth, offering their own take on the scandal. Elizabeth even reads one of Gracie’s love letters to Joe, one that references both the sensual pleasure and forbidden nature of their relationship.
Both Joe and Gracie try to reframe the affair as something other than the statutory rape that it actually was. (In one moment of transparency, Joe wonders whether he was habitually abused—because he simply wasn’t old enough to make such a grave decision.)
While Gracie and Joe present themselves as a happy couple, Joe is not as happy as he pretends. He exchanges texts with one of his monarch butterfly compatriots. It’s mostly innocuous, but the fact that he hurriedly puts his phone away when Gracie enters a room suggests that he doesn’t consider those texts entirely innocent. And at one point, he offhandedly suggests to his text-mate that they visit the monarch breeding grounds together. (The unseen texter then reminds Joe that he’s married.)
But Elizabeth’s not interested simply in a clinical documentation on her visit. She’s also clearly interested in Joe. When she looks at auditions of the young teens who’ll be playing Joe in the movie, she insists they look for someone “sexier.” She flirts with the adult Joe when Gracie’s not around.
[Spoiler Warning] Eventually, Elizabeth succeeds in seducing him. She kisses him repeatedly until he responds, and the two wind up having sex on a living room floor. The ensuing scene is pretty graphic but relatively short: Sexual movements are seen, along with Joe’s bare backside. (Elizabeth wears a flimsy negligee that covers everything critical.) As Joe gets up, the camera catches a shadowed look at the man’s privates.
Joe showers behind some partially obscuring glass walls, but we can still see both his hazy genitals and his rear from the side. Elizabeth wears cleavage-baring tops. Georgie talks about how he had sexual relations with another boy on the day he heard about his mother’s affair with Joe.
A friend of Joe’s said that he saw a movie that Elizabeth had been in before—something involving her being completely naked and participating in a “blood ritual.” The friend says he had a hard time following the plot—but then admits he just Googled “Elizabeth Barry Naked.” Later, Joe looks—repeatedly—at an old soap commercial that Elizabeth appeared in. We see Elizabeth sultrily splash water over her face, and her bare shoulders appear in the television frame. We hear rumors that Gracie was sexually abused, beginning when she was 12, by her brothers.
Elizabeth speaks at a drama class, where one student asks if she’s done sex scenes. She says that she has, and she goes into detail about what it’s like—how it can be just like a choreographed dance, and how sometimes it can slip into something more. Sometimes she asks herself, “Am I pretending that I’m experiencing pleasure? Or am I pretending that I’m not experiencing pleasure?”
Joe nearly falls off a roof. He’s also apparently a doctor or a nurse, and we see the X-rays (along with a picture of the scratched-up face) of a boy who broke his arm.
The f-word is used six times, and the s-word twice. We also hear “a–” and “b–ch,” along with about seven misuses of God’s name. Jesus’ name is abused three times.
Charlie, Joe and Gracie’s son, sneaks up to the roof to smoke a marijuana joint. Joe’s there and awkwardly encourages him to light up, which he does. When Joe mentions that he’s never smoked weed before, his son invites him to take a toke, which he does. Joe then gushes about how great Charlie is and how much he’ll miss him at college—eventually bursting into tears. “I can’t tell if we’re connecting or creating a bad memory, but I can’t help it!” he bawls.
Gracie chastises Joe for having two beers at a party. We see Joe drink beer elsewhere, and other characters imbibe wine and other mixed beverages. Gracie’s ex-husband admits to being “blotto drunk” when he first met Gracie.
Georgie (Gracie’s son by a previous marriage) smokes beside Elizabeth, who’s asthmatic. She asks him to blow his smoke elsewhere.
Someone sends Joe and Gracie a box filled with excrement (which Elizabeth unwittingly hand-delivers to them). Joe and Gracie mention that it’s the first time in a while that they’ve received such a package. But then they add that it used to be quite frequent.
The fact that Elizabeth carried that package to Gracie and Joe seems symbolic of her own arrival. She comes to study Gracie and her life, but in the end, she’s more interested in exploiting it—and using both her and Joe for her own complicated purposes.
Mary, Gracie and Joe’s daughter, tries on dresses to wear at graduation. When she puts on a dress that exposes her arms, Gracie tells her how “brave” she is, and how wonderful that this generation doesn’t have the hang-ups that hers did about being thin. (A shamed Mary selects another dress that covers her arms.) We also hear that Gracie gave her older daughter a scale for graduation—just like her own mother gave her.
As Elizabeth sits in a high-school drama class, fielding questions, someone asks her what she looks for when choosing a role. Elizabeth says that she likes to play characters that make choices that are hard to explain. “It’s the complexity,” she adds. “It’s the moral gray areas that are interesting, right?”
Near the front row, Gracie’s daughter squirms. After all, Elizabeth’s talking about her mother now. The questionable choices Gracie made brought her into being.
May December is likely to make a lot of other people squirm in their seats, too.
The film can certainly be tawdry and profane. But the images we see on screen or the words we hear barely preface what Director Tom Haynes encourages us to feel. Secular critics—who have largely praised the film—call this story “unsettling,” “uncomfortable,” “unnerving.” It forces viewers into a moral blender, giving them two unlikable-but-unforgettable characters embodied by two powerhouse actors (Oscar winners Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore). It compels those characters to go toe-to-toe—not with hooks and jabs, but with nouns and verbs, each syllable loaded with hidden meaning and menace.
This fall has given us remorseless assassins and despicable businessmen. But perhaps the most chilling scene I’ve watched lately involves Gracie simply dabbing makeup on Elizabeth, the two talking quietly. You get the feeling that each dab on the cheek, each involuntary twitch of the eyelid, is a move on the board.
May December features some nuanced performances. But it’s not an easy movie to watch, in part because we don’t want either character to win their game. Both are morally compromised. Both are unrepentant. Both know what they want, and they’ll stop at nothing to get it—and keep it.
In the closing moments of the film, we see Elizabeth on set as Gracie—acting out the role she researched so thoroughly. She holds a snake toward her fake young conquest, and she promises it won’t bite.
The movie-within-the-movie seems to want to remind its audience of another snake, tempting another, earlier innocent soul in a garden.
For me, though, the snake might’ve been an avatar for the movie itself: I know that snakes of this sort lie, and snakes of this sort can bite.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.