Most critics agree: 'May December' successfully swings between camp and drama, offering a searing look at a deeply unsettling relationship

Most critics agree: 'May December' successfully swings between camp and drama, offering a searing look at a deeply unsettling relationship
  • "May December" is playing in select theaters and will be available to stream on Netflix on Friday.

  • Natalie Portman stars as an actor shadowing a controversial age-gap couple in preparation for a movie.

  • "May December" currently has a 92% critics score on Rotten Tomatoes.

"May December," the latest film directed by Todd Haynes, is a critical darling.

The movie is a certified hit with a critics score of 92% and an audience score of 93% on the review-aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes at the time of this article's publication.

Starring Julianne Moore as Gracie Atherton-Yoo and Joe Yoo Charles Melton as Joe Yoo, "May December" centers on a couple with a 23-year age gap, whose relationship has parallels to the 1997 real-life sexual abuse scandal involving teacher Mary Kay Letourneau and her then 12-year-old student Vili Fualaau.

The film is set more than 20 years after Gracie, then married and 36 years old, had an affair with Joe, a seventh grader who worked in the same pet shop as her. The couple seems content with their suburban life in Savannah, Georgia, until a TV actor named Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman) spends time with the pair in preparation to portray Gracie in an upcoming movie about their inappropriate romance.

As Elizabeth becomes more immersed in her research and Gracie and Joe's dynamic, tensions rise among the film's main trio.

"May December" is currently playing in select theaters and will be released on Netflix on Friday. Here's what critics are saying about it. from the film's mixed tone to rave reviews for Melton, who recently won the Gotham Award for his supporting performance.

Charles Melton, known for his role as Reggie Mantle on "Riverdale," is the film's breakout star.

Charles Melton as Joe in "May December."
Charles Melton as Joe in "May December."François Duhamel/Netflix

"Moore and Portman are tremendous, but it's Melton's anguished performance that gives the movie its slow-building emotional power." — Manohla Dargis, The New York Times

"Melton is the surprise here. Though he projects swagger as Reggie on The CW, he tamps down his heartthrob qualities to play a man who is both old for his age and young. With one kid away at college and two more graduating high school, he holds the posture of a middle-aged dad while at the same time maintaining the innocence of someone still stuck in childhood. — Esther Zuckerman, The Daily Beast

"Melton plays this man's gradual awakening to how he's been at the mercy of things he still can't reckon with in the most delicate, heartbreaking way that when the bomb goes off, you realize the damage has remained long after the flashbulbs stopped." — David Fear, Rolling Stone

"Even in moments when he has no dialogue, Melton is hard not to watch." — Candice Frederick, Huffington Post

"He will break your heart and not because of any huge Oscar-reel moment, but all the small ones leading up to the very earned tears. He's the sobering [reminder] that behind all the intrigue and scandal and fun of the quest for truth, if we accept the reality of 'May December' as some sort of reality, then we have to accept the tragedy of Joe." — Lindsey Bahr, Associated Press

"May December" juggles various tones, from melodramatic and serious to unsettlingly funny and campy.

Julianne Moore as Gracie Atherton-Yoo and Natalie Portman as Elizabeth Berry in "May December."
Julianne Moore as Gracie Atherton-Yoo and Natalie Portman as Elizabeth Berry in "May December."François Duhamel/Netflix

"Creepy and campy in equal measure, 'May December' will certainly leave your head spinning." — Christian Holub, Entertainment Weekly

"Serpentine in its plotting, queasily unsettling in its subject matter, and very, very funny, Todd Haynes's latest picture is as deft a tonal juggling act as you will see anywhere this year." — Wendy Ide, The Guardian

"The situation in 'May December' is so serious it feels dangerous to even joke about it. This sense of danger is part of the movie's perverse fun. 'May December' is one of Haynes' most unbalancing and provocative films." — Sheila O'Malley, Roger Ebert

"Throughout the film, the director plays the audience like an accordion, pushing buttons and pulling and squeezing us into feeling things — disgust, ironic laughter, confusion, voyeuristic guilt, genuine curiosity — like a master." — Michael O'Sullivan, Washington Post

"Haynes is not really known as a comedy director. But that's the genre 'May December' most closely resembles, dark as its matters may be." — Richard Lawson, Vanity Fair

Portman masterfully interprets the monstrousness of Gracie in monologue

Natalie Portman as Elizabeth Berry in "May December."
Natalie Portman as Elizabeth Berry in "May December."François Duhamel/Netflix

"Her transformation in a scene where Portman breaks the fourth wall and reads one of Gracie's old love letters in her voice and demeanor is simply breathtaking acting that will be surely be taught in many an acting school." — Tomris Laffly, TheWrap

"An astonishing monologue delivered by Portman into a mirror in particular demands to be seen." — David Rooney, The Hollywood Reporter

"Still, the most crushing, astounding sequence is an unbroken monologue Portman gives toward the end of the film as she tries to inhabit Gracie at her most monstrous. It's a fabulous performance of a performance. You can see Elizabeth trying to contort herself into Gracie in Portman's face, captured by cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt in the unnatural light of a makeup table." — Esther Zuckerman, The Daily Beast

As the movie goes deeper into its exploration of morality, audiences will feel uncomfortable with the subject matter — and that's the point.

Charles Melton as Joe Yoo and Natalie Portman as Elizabeth Berry in "May December."
Charles Melton as Joe Yoo and Natalie Portman as Elizabeth Berry in "May December."François Duhamel/Netflix

"Todd Haynes' newest film will likely make you squirm with its sheer moral audacity, but it's worth it for this daring drama." — Laura Babiak, Observer

"It's sort of a movie about guilt, sort of about conscience, sort of about exploitation, but Haynes's wrapping it in camp trappings reminds us that this is the stuff of tabloids, and the lightness of touch makes it entertaining and uncomfortable all at once." — Alissa Wilkinson, Vox

"Haynes understands just how upsetting this story is, and lets that crawl and fester under your skin, but he's also interested in why audiences are fascinated with this material." — Esther Zuckerman, The Daily Beast

"'May December' is very funny and light on its feet, but it's also a deeply uncomfortable movie." — Bilge Ebiri, Vulture

"May December" refrains from casting judgment on its complex characters, instead placing the onus on the audience.

Julianne Moore as Gracie Atherton-Yoo and Charles Melton as Joe Yoo in "May December."
Julianne Moore as Gracie Atherton-Yoo and Charles Melton as Joe Yoo in "May December."Courtesy of Netflix

"The events of 'May December' are so objectively appalling they scream for a moral judgment to be handed down, and yet the deeper it goes, the more confusing things get. It's unsettling to be confused in a film about this subject." — Sheila O'Malley, Roger Ebert

"Broadly, it explores the question: What does 'normal' look like for a couple like them today, with time offering the ultimate clarity? And it challenges the audience to sit with that as we remain as interested as ever." — Candice Frederick, Huffington Post

"Withholding moral judgment as best he can, Haynes keeps things more emotional than intellectual, trusting audiences to do that unpacking on their own." — Peter Debruge, Variety

"'May December' offers up a tricky moral equation — even the film itself is a quandary. How much should we be laughing at this, or with this? That assessment will have to be made in the eye of each beholder." — Richard Lawson, Vanity Fair

"May December" received largely positive reviews, with the exception of critics who called it " a bit glacial" and an "ultimately disappointing film."

Julianne Moore as Gracie Atherton-Yoo and Natalie Portman as Elizabeth Berry in "May December."
Julianne Moore as Gracie Atherton-Yoo and Natalie Portman as Elizabeth Berry in "May December."Francois Duhamel/Netflix

David Rooney of The Hollywood Reporter praised the cast performances, but wrote that "the emotional volatility of the story ends up being somewhat muted by the approach, likely making this a tough sell beyond Haynes' devoted admirers."

Rooney also expressed dissatisfaction over the screenplay not addressing why Gracie would give Elizabeth access to her for the upcoming movie, considering her avoidance of lingering on her past and critically examining her decisions.

"The turbulence uncorked in Gracie and Joe's marriage threatens serious damage, but somehow the film remains too restrained to be dramatically satisfying," the critic said.

"The lead actors ensure that it's always fascinating, but despite the raw nature of the wounds reopened, it's all a bit glacial," Rooney added.

London Evening Standard critic Jo-Ann Titmarsh asked even more unanswered questions, such as why people in the town support Gracie's small baking business out of pity and why Joe doesn't question the fractures of their relationship until Elizabeth's arrival.

The headline for Titmarsh's review, published after the movie's premiere at Cannes in May, said that the director "undercooks what could have been a tasty drama."

"While not as strong as 'Carol,' 'May 'December is an intriguing, if ultimately disappointing film,'" Titmarsh wrote, referencing Haynes' 2015 movie.

Meanwhile, Michael O'Sullivan of the Washington Post said that the movie's premise is "a strange subject for satire, let alone high-minded drama" and by the final scene, "the whole thing just feels really, really sad."

Read the original article on Business Insider