Review: ‘May December,’ starring Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore

January 19, 2024

by Carla Hay

Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore in “May December” (Photo by Francois Duhamel/Netflix)

“May December”

Directed by Todd Haynes

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Tybee Island, Georgia, in 2015, the dramatic film “May December” features a white and Asian cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A famous actress is starring in a movie about a disgraced and formerly imprisoned sex offender, who seduced an underage co-worker and later married him, and the actress goes to the couple’s home to do research for the role.

Culture Audience: “May December” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners, filmmaker Todd Haynes, and movies that put a fictional spin on real-life scandals.

Julianne Moore and Charles Melton in “May December” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“May December” is a very glossy psychological portrait of manipulation and exploitation, inspired by a real-life sex scandal. Although the principal cast members give above-average performances, it’s a slow-moving film with a fragmented story. Some viewers might see “May December” as a very dark comedy. However, the movie’s few comedic moments are in short spurts and then quickly fade into the background when “May December” becomes more concerned about making viewers increasingly uncomfortable with certain awful characters pretending to be better people than they really are.

Directed by Todd Haynes and written by Samy Burch, “May December” gets its title from the term “May December relationship,” to describe romances that have a big age gap between the partners. The younger partner is supposed to be in the spring of youth (as exemplified by the spring month of May), while the older partner is supposed to be closer to the end of life (as indicated by end-of-the-year month of December). “May December” had its world premiere at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival and made the rounds at other film festivals in 2023, including the New York Film Festival and the BFI London Film Festival.

In “May December,” the story’s scandal is based on the real-life relationship between Mary Kay Letourneau and Vili Fualaau. In 1996, the year they got sexually involved with each other, Letourneau was a 34-year-old married mother of four children, and she was Fulaau’s schoolteacher in Burien, Washington. He was 12 years old.

Letourneau eventually served time in jail (in 1997) and in prison (from 1998 to 2004) for statutory rape and for violating the terms of her 1997 plea agreement, which had required her to stay away from a then-underage Fualaau. Her first husband divorced her in 1999. She gave birth to two daughters fathered by Fualaau. The first daughter was born in 1997, while Letourneau was awaiting her sentencing. The second daughter was born in 1998, when Letourneau was in prison. Letourneau and Fualaau got married in 2005, but they separated in 2019. Letourneau died of colorectal cancer in 2020, at the age of 58.

All of this background information is helpful to better understand the nuances in “May December.” In the movie, the character based on Letourneau is named Gracie Atherton-Yoo (played by Julianne Moore), while the Fualaau-based character is Joe Yoo (played by Charles Melton), who are living a quiet suburban life together as married parents in Tybee Island, Georgia. Elizabeth Berry (played by Natalie Portman) is a 36-year-old famous actress who is starring as Gracie in a made-for-TV movie. “May December” (which takes place in 2015, which is about 23 years after the scandal) shows what happens over the course of several days when Elizabeth goes to Tybee Island to do research for the role by visiting Gracie and Joe, as well as interviewing their friends, family and other people who know this notorious couple.

“May December” begins with a scene of Elizabeth in a Georgia hotel room as she gets ready to go to the Yoo home to meet Gracie and Joe for the first time. Meanwhile, Gracie and Joe are at their home, where they are preparing to welcome Elizabeth to a family cookout in their backyard. Gracie is in the kitchen making deviled eggs and a cake with her friend/neighbor Rhonda (played by Andrea Frankle), who is Gracie’s staunchest defender and supporter. It’s later revealed that Gracie has a home-based business where she makes cakes. Joe works in a hospital as a medical assistant.

Before Elizabeth arrives, Gracie tells Rhonda what she expects from Elizabeth: “All I ask is that she’s polite and not just sitting there with her sunglasses on.” And when Elizabeth and Gracie meet in a polite but slightly guarded way, Gracie tells Elizabeth: “I want you to tell the story right.” Elizabeth, who speaks in calm, measured tones, replies: “I want you to feel seen and known.”

In real life, Letourneau and Fualaau had two daughters. In “May December,” Gracie and Joe have two daughters and a son. Eldest child Honor (played by Piper Curda) is an outspoken college student living away from home, but she will soon be visiting to attend the high-school graduation of her younger twin siblings: insecure Mary (played by Elizabeth Yu) and rebellious Charlie (played by Gabriel Chun). Another member of the Yoo family is Joe’s widower father Joe Yoo Sr. (played by Kelvin Han Yee), a Korean immigrant who—just like his son Joe—chain smokes when he’s feeling stressed-out.

Over time, viewers see that Gracie likes to appear composed and in control in public and when Elizabeth is there observing. But in private and when Elizabeth isn’t there, Gracie is high-strung, very demanding and overly critical of other people. When things don’t go her way, Gracie loves to play the victim.

Gracie also treats Joe as someone whose only purpose in life is to make her happy. When Gracie has a tearful meltdown because a customer canceled an order for a cake that Gracie already made, Gracie expects Joe to comfort her like someone who needs to be comforted over the death of a loved one. And there are signs that Gracie has an undiagnosed mental illness, such as when Gracie insists to Joe in private that he was the one who seduced her when he was a child.

Another scene that shows how Gracie is a master manipulator is when she and Mary (with Elizabeth invited to observe) go shopping for Mary’s graduation dress. At a store’s dressing room, Mary tries on dresses. Mary’s first choice is a sleeveless dress, but Gracie doesn’t want Mary to wear a dress that will expose Mary’s arms. Mary gets annoyed with Gracie and firmly says that she’s getting the dress. However, Mary changes her mind when Gracie comments that other girls in the graduating class probably won’t wear sleeveless dresses because sleeveless dresses will make their arms look fat.

Over time, an unspoken rivalry develops between Gracie and Elizabeth, who is very aware that image-conscious Gracie is bothered by Elizabeth, who is going to play a younger version of Gracie. One of the movie’s most memorable scenes about this power struggle is when Elizabeth and Gracie are standing in front of a bathroom mirror in Gracie’s home while Gracie is putting on makeup. Rather than have Elizabeth mimic her, Gracie insists on putting the makeup on Elizabeth herself.

Joe is quiet, humble and unassuming. And at first, he seems to be in the background of Elizabeth’s thoughts as she puts most of her initial focus on studying Gracie. It should come as no surprise that the more that Gracie gushes about Joe to make it sound like they have a beautiful love story, the more that Elizabeth seems to get curious about Joe and takes more of an interest in him. Elizabeth flatters Joe and drops hints that he deserves a better life than the one that he has with control-freak Gracie. But does Elizabeth really care about Joe as a person, or does Elizaebth care more about immersing herself so much into Gracie’s life that she wants to replicate aspects of Gracie’s life?

Some of the people whom Elizabeth interviews for her research are Gracie’s ex-husband Tom Atherton (played by D.W. Moffett), who is now married to another woman; Gracie’s adult son Georgie Atherton (played by Cory Michael Smith), from her first marriage, who bitterly tells Elizabeth that Gracie ruined Georgie’s life; and Colin Henderson (played by Charles Green), the owner of the pet store where Joe worked as a kid and where Gracie was Joe’s supervisor. Observant viewers will notice that for all the interviews that Elizabeth does, she’s not very forthcoming about herself, until a very revealing scene where she makes a speaking appearance in Mary’s drama class and answers prying questions from a few of the students.

No one from Elizabeth’s personal life is seen in the movie, which is the movie’s way of showing how Elizabeth skillfully compartmentalizes her life. Elizabeth is shown briefly talking in phone conversations at her hotel with her fiancé and with the director of the movie where she stars as Gracie. In these conversations, she reveals herself even more to be a very driven and ambitious actress.

Elizabeth is also seen in the hotel room looking at video auditions of teenage boys who will be playing the role of Joe. These boys are supposed to be in their early teens, but Elizabeth remarks that they don’t look “sexy” enough, based on what Elizabeth has seen of Joe. But it’s a sign of a reality disconnect for Elizabeth, because the Joe she’s getting to know is an adult, not the child who was manipulated into an illegal sexual relationship with an adult.

“May December” presents Elizabeth as the central character, but the movie doesn’t always do a great job of balancing the perspectives of Gracie and Joe. There is almost nothing told about how Joe’s side of the family reacted to the scandal, or how Joe’s experiences as a child of an immigrant affected his outlook on life. His father seems to have accepted the marriage of Joe and Gracie, but was this acceptance easy, difficult, or somewhere in between? The movie never says and doesn’t seem to care.

Joe is only given two or three really good scenes that show he’s more than just a loyal “boy toy” husband. Those scenes arrive when awareness starts to sink in with Joe about how much of his childhood was robbed when Gracie chose to cross the line and have a sexual relationship with him when he was a child. It hits him the hardest when he sees Mary and Charlie graduating from high school. This graduation ceremony scene is when Joe fully understands that his children’s coming of age and starting new chapters in their lives as young adults are very different from what he experienced.

What “May December” also does very well is show how Elizabeth’s presence is the catalyst for Gracie and Joe to re-evaluate how they want to be perceived by others and how they perceive themselves. Gracie’s reaction is to “double down” on the narrative that she and Joe have a “fairytale love story.” Joe starts to have doubts and wonders if this “fairytale love story” he’s believed in for all these years was one big lie.

Meanwhile, on another level, “May December” is also a story about what happens when two predators meet and become competitive with each other—not just in how to interpret Gracie’s life but also in trying to prove who’s living a more “fulfilled” life. In that regard, the scenes where Elizabeth and Gracie are in the same room are fascinating to watch. Observant viewers will notice that Elizabeth’s “research” has a more profound effect on her than Elizabeth expects. This is demonstrated effectively in the movie’s final scene.

Portman and Moore are compelling to watch in “May December,” but the movie loses a bit of steam when it can’t really decide how much importance Gracie’s children and in-laws should have in the story. It’s never explained why Elizabeth talked to only one of Gracie’s children from Gracie’s first marriage and not the other children from Gracie’s first marriage. And the character of Joe Sr. seems like a “token” character, because the movie doesn’t seem concerned about how showing or telling how Gracie’s scandalous actions with Joe affected members of Joe’s family.

If “May December” is supposed to be a dark comedy, then it doesn’t quite succeed as a dark comedy or satire like director Gus Van Sant’s 1995 movie “To Die For,” starring Nicole Kidman and Joaquin Phoenix. “To Die For” succeeded in its comedic intentions as a movie version of a real-life scandal about an adult female teacher seducing an underage teenage student to commit a felony crime. As a psychological drama, “May December” excels in its intention to be an unsettling film about the human cost of treating people like pawns in a chess game.

Netflix released “May December” in select U.S. cinemas on November 17, 2023. The movie premiered on Netflix on December 1, 2023.

Review: ‘Call Jane,’ starring Elizabeth Banks and Sigourney Weaver

January 5, 2023

by Carla Hay

Elizabeth Banks and Sigourney Weaver in “Call Jane” (Photo by Wilson Webb/Roadside Attractions)

“Call Jane”

Directed by Phyllis Nagy

Culture Representation: Taking place in Chicago, from 1968 to 1973, the dramatic film “Call Jane” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A lawyer’s wife becomes involved with the Jane network, a group of mostly women who provided abortion services in the Chicago area when it was illegal at the time. 

Culture Audience: “Call Jane” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of stars Elizabeth Banks and Sigourney Weaver, as well as people interested in dramatic movies about what life was like for middle-class women in the late 1960s to early 1970s, before the Roe vs. Wade case in 1973 that gave federal legal protection for abortion in the United States.

Elizabeth Banks in “Call Jane” (Photo by Wilson Webb/Roadside Attractions)

“Call Jane,” a drama that takes place from 1968 to 1973, is both a look back into the past and a look into the present and future of anyone who cannot get access to a safe and legal abortion in the United States. When “Call Jane” had its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival in January of that year, abortion had federal legal protection in the U.S., ever since the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe vs. Wade case in 1973. In June 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, with the court’s decision allowing individual states to determine their respective abortion laws.

“Call Jane” is told from the perspective of a fictional, middle-class woman who gets involved in the Jane network, an underground abortion network in Chicago, beginning in 1968, when she sought a illegal abortion for herself. Some of the comedic moments in “Call Jane” are awkwardly placed, and a few of the characters become dangerously close to being parodies. However, the movie is intriguing overall in portraying a pre-Roe v. Wade female perspective of abortion in the U.S.

Directed by Phyllis Nagy, “Call Jane” uses a lot of fact-based elements of the real-life Jane network and blends them into a story with fictional characters. The 2019 film “Ask for Jane” (written and directed by Rachel Carey) did the same thing, but “Call Jane” has a much higher caliber of talent in front of and behind the camera than “Ask for Jane.” Both films have flaws and are centered primarily on white, middle-class women, when the reality is that women of various demographics used the abortion services of the Jane network. However, “Call Jane” (written by Hayley Schore and Roshan Sethi) is a better movie overall in every way and doesn’t look like a mediocre made-for-TV film in the way that “Ask for Jane” does.

In “Call Jane,” the main protagonist is Joy Griffin (played by Elizabeth Banks), a homemaker and wife of an attorney named Will (played by Chris Messina), who works in criminal justice. Joy and Will live in Chicago, and they have a teenage daughter named Charlotte (played by Grace Edwards), who’s about 13 or 14 years old. At the beginning of the movie, it’s 1968, and Joy is pregnant.

The movie’s opening scene shows Joy and Will are leaving a lawyers’ convention which has a police barricade outside because of anti-Vietnam War protestors outside. Joy sees police brutality against the protestors as she and Will drive off. He comments with some relief that Charlotte is too young to get involved in the anti-war, anti-establishment movement. Little does Will know that Joy will soon become involved in a “radical” movement of her own.

Joy thinks that she has an ideal life. She has a good and loving family. She helps her husband with his legal briefs. “Honey, you make me sound like Clarence Darrow,” Will says appreciatively.

One of Joy’s best friends is her neighbor Lana (played by Kate Mara), a widow whose daughter Erin (played by Bianca D’Ambrosio) is a friend of Charlotte’s. Lana identifies as a conservative Republican. It’s hinted that Joy is also a registered Republican, but Joy likes to think of herself as more open-minded and more liberal than most Republican mothers.

Things take a turn in Joy’s life one day, when she is dancing with Charlotte in the kitchen to a Velvet Underground song when Joy suddenly collapses. She’s rushed to a hospital, where she gets a grim diagnosis: Her pregancy is causing her to have cardiomyopathy (congestive heart failure), and the doctor says the only medical treatment to stop it would be to have an abortion.

However, in Chicago in 1968, abortion is legal only if it is approved by an authorized board of medical professionals. In Joy’s case, the decision is made by an all-male group of doctors. She’s told that she has a 50% chance of living if she does not terminate the pregnancy. The doctors vote unanimously to not approve the abortion.

Joy doesn’t get much help from Dr. Campbell (played by Joel Brady), her obstetrician/gynecologist, who tells her that another option to get a legal abortion would be for Joy to pretend that she’s suicidal. Dr. Campbell would then get notes from psychiatrists to approve the abortion. Dr. Campbell’s secretary has an even more dangerous suggestion: “Just fall down a staircase. It worked for me.” Fearing that she will die as a result of the pregnancy, a desperate Joy goes to a seedy abortion place in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood, but she backs out of the abortion, because she feels that the abortion will be botched by the unsavory people who are in charge.

Joy then finds out about the Jane network through flyers posted on a street. The flyers say, “Pregnant? Anxious? Get Help! Call Jane.” Joy calls the phone number on the flyer, and she discovers that the Jane network offers confidential and anonymous abortions. Because everything is illegal in this process, Joy sees firsthand that the paranoia and precautions involved in the Jane network are on the level of a well-coordinated spy network. People uses aliases and code names and are driven to secretive locations for the abortions.

Joy is terrified during her abortion, but after it’s over, she is surprised and relieved by the counseling and comfort that she receives from the women in the network. During her abortion experience, Joy meets several of the Jane network’s key players. They include strong-willed feminist leader Virginia (played by Sigourney Weaver), who founded the Jane network; outspoken Gwen (played by Wunmi Mosaku), who drove Joy to the abortion location; and compassionate Maeve (played by Evangeline Young), who is among the first women in the group to advocate for the Jane network to offer free abortions to women who can’t afford their price.

The only man who’s part of the network is an abortionist named Dean (played by Cory Michael Smith), who says he’s a doctor with training in obstetrics and gynecology. He is the person who performed the abortion on Joy. Dean’s bedside manner is often arrogant and abrupt to the women who are in his care, but the Jane network relies on him because none of the women in the group has medical training. Later in the story, Dean demands more money for his payment, so the women have to decide how much they need Dean to be a part of their group.

After talking to the members of the Jane network, Joy finds out how much help they need, and she decides to become a part of the network as a volunteer. Joy’s intention is to help other women, many of whom are even more desperate to have an abortion than Joy was. Joy keeps her Jane network activities a secret from everyone she knows who is not part of the network.

At first, Joy lies to Will by saying that she’s taking an art class, to explain her absences when she would usually be at home. When Will complains to Joy that she isn’t spending as much time at home like she used to do, Joy responds by saying, “I need to be with other people who think and do.” The trailer for “Call Jane” already revealed that Will finds out about Joy’s involvement in the Jane network. Will is concerned about Joy going to jail and worried about losing his attorney license if people discover that he knew about Joy’s illegal activities and did nothing about it.

“Call Jane” has some hokey “rah rah feminism” type of dialogue that sounds like made-for-TV slogans instead of realistic conversations. One thing that “Call Jane” does a much better job of portraying than “Ask for Jane” does is how the Jane network had a lot of in-fighting and disagreements among its members. One major point of contention was in how to decide who deserved to get free abortions. Virginia wants it to be a random selection from low-income women, while other Jane network members think the decision should be done on a case-by-case basis of who is the most in need.

The issues of race and socioeconomic class are also authentically discussed in “Call Jane.” Gwen, who is the only woman of color in the group, has to constantly remind the other Jane network members to think outside their privileged bubbles to have more empathy for people of different races and lower incomes who have worse abortion hardships than the average middle-class white woman. During a heated argument (in one of the movie’s best scenes), Gwen points out that African American women in the Chicago area are less likely to be able to afford a safe abortion and are more likely to die from botched abortions. Gwen calls it a form of “black genocide,” which Virginia scoffs at as a “batshit” concept.

As for Joy, she becomes friendly with Gwen, but it’s mostly a superficial relationship that doesn’t extend to Joy showing an interest in having Gwen in her life for the long haul. The movie has some racial stereotyping, by having Gwen show Joy how to smoke marijuana. It’s as if the movie is saying that out all the left-wing, progressive types that Joy is now hanging out with in the Jane network, the only black person in the group is the only person who needs to be singled out as a habitual pot smoker.

Joy’s main conflicts are with abrasive Dean, because she thinks he’s toxic to the group, and he doesn’t offer the compassionate care that she thinks the abortion patients deserve. In real life, the Jane network never had anyone die from the abortion services that the Jane network provided. It was important for the Jane network to also have a reputation for offering meaningful counseling to abortion patients, which is something most underground abortion groups didn’t do at the time. Joy eventually finds a way to deal with Dean, but the movie doesn’t do a good-enough job in convincing viewers that neophyte Joy comes up with this solution, and that other more-experienced people in the Jane network (even whip-smart leader Virginia) couldn’t think of it earlier.

If viewers are wondering if any of the characters in “Call Jane,” are based on real people, there are similarities to some of the real-life people in the Jane network. Joy is probably based in part on Judith Arcana (also known as Judy Pildes), a prominent Jane network member married to an attorney. Virginia is no doubt based on Heather Booth, who is credited with founding the Jane network. Gwen is most likely based on Marie Leaner, the most prominent African American member of the Jane network.

If people want to learn more about the Jane network by watching a movie, the best one is the 2022 HBO documentary “The Janes,” directed by Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes. (Arcana, Booth and Leaner are all interviewed in “The Janes” documentary.) Not as comprehensive as “The Janes” but worth seeking out is the 1995 documentary “Jane: An Abortion Service” (directed by Kate Kirtz and Nell Lundy), which had a limited release in theaters and was originally televised on PBS.

All of the cast members in “Call Jane” are very good in their roles, with Weaver being an obvious standout because of her acting talent and because Virginia has the strongest personality. “Call Jane” would have benefited from telling viewers a little bit more about the lives of Virginia and Gwen, who are the two Jane network characters other than Joy who get the most screen time and dialogue. In many ways, Virginia and Gwen are much more interesting than Joy, who comes across as a little bland, although Banks does an admirable job with the way the character was written. The biggest failing in “Call Jane” is not showing enough diversity in the abortion patients who get some kind of focus in the movie, when this diversity of abortion patients existed in real life for the Jane network.

Nagy’s direction of “Call Jane” is solid but occasionally disjointed. For example, the movie veers off into a very clumsily depicted and rushed plot development about Joy becoming the target of a police investigation, led by an undercover cop named Detective Chilmark (played by John Magaro), in a very short section of the movie. “Call Jane” should have spent more time on this plot development to bring more tension to the story. Before this plot development, the most tension that Joy gets from the Jane network is arguing with Dean.

“Call Jane” doesn’t have enough of anything that can be considered special or extraordinary filmmaking. And it’s not a movie that is going to change people’s minds about whether abortion should be legal or illegal. However, for viewers looking for a dramatic version of female empowerment taking place in the early years of the American feminist movement, “Call Jane” is a worthy option.

Roadside Attractions released “Call Jane” in U.S. cinemas on October 28, 2022. The movie was released on digital and VOD on December 6, 2022. “Call Jane” was released on Blu-ray and DVD on December 13, 2022.

Copyright 2017-2024 Culture Mix
CULTURE MIX