In May December, director Todd Haynes dissects memory, truth, and performance as deftly as his protagonist Gracie instructs Elizabeth, the actor preparing to portray her, on how to mimic her makeup.
Haynes’s latest film, which made its buzzy premiere at the Cannes Film Festival to an almost 10-minute standing ovation, examines the Atherton-Yoos, an untraditional family born out of a public scandal twenty years prior, when a 36-year-old Gracie became involved with a 13-year-old Joe while working together at a pet store. “All lives, all families, are the result of choices,” says the Academy Award-nominated director, “and revisiting and probing them is a risky business.”
Oscar winner Julianne Moore (Boogie Nights) brings an eerie mix of fragility and predation to the role of matriarch Gracie, whose life with her much younger husband, Joe (Charles Melton, Riverdale), and their twins is interrupted when TV star Elizabeth (Natalie Portman, Black Swan) descends on the couple’s seemingly serene Savannah, Georgia home. Elizabeth has been cast to play Gracie in an upcoming movie about the couple’s origin story, so in preparation for the role, she shadows Gracie and probes those closest to the family to learn what happened. Soon the lines between the two women, the past, and the truth blur.
Moore, who has collaborated with Haynes four times prior on Safe, Far from Heaven, I’m Not There, and Wonderstruck, captures Gracie’s unsettling girlishness and her overbearing need to control everything around her — including Elizabeth’s imminent depiction of her. Melton aches with stifled pain as Joe, who begins to break out from Gracie’s manipulative grip just as their twins prepare to graduate from high school and the butterflies he keeps emerge from their cocoons.
“What appealed to me about [screenwriter] Samy Burch’s exceptional script was how it navigated potentially volatile subject matter with an observational patience that allowed the characters to be explored with uncommon subtlety,” Haynes describes. “It simmered with moral and narrative ambiguity which, as a film, would enlist the viewer into an active and excited state of watching and questioning.”
All interviews included in this piece were completed prior to July 14, 2023.