This arrangement comes with built-in discomfort, because Gracie is a tabloid fixture—a Mary Kay Letourneau type, notorious for her seduction of an underage boy. Gracie went to prison for her crime, but maintained a relationship of sorts with young Joe, who impregnated her before her prison sentence. Following her release, the two married. As May December begins, it’s many years later, with Gracie in her 50s and Joe (Charles Melton) in his 30s, and they’re preparing to send their youngest children off to college. In other words, their relationship appears to have remained stable, surviving past its tawdriest headlines (though remnants of her notoriety arrive in the form of the occasional literal dogshit through the mail). Even Elizabeth’s film project isn’t a cheap TV-movie type of thing; it sounds more like something A24 or Neon (or at least, hey, Netflix) might distribute. This doesn’t, however, keep Elizabeth from overstepping some boundaries, something she does so frequently, and often so politely, that the audience may start to wonder if there are more (and less visible) lines to this situation than it seems from the outside.
The tone of Haynes’ film feels near impossible: part dark comedy, part melodrama, part intimate psychological study. In that mix (if not its precise execution), it recalls another Portman movie: Black Swan, where she plays a driven ballet dancer self-destructively fixated on proving her worth. It’s also the role that won her an Academy Award for Best Actress, which can be interpreted as a tribute to Portman’s own dedication in the role and/or evidence of how strenuous self-torture, even when it’s made to look horrific—and Black Swan is a horror movie, in addition to the previously mentioned genres—is ultimately rewarded by other actors. Still, Portman herself must be fascinated by these public displays. She followed up Black Swan with two films placing her character in even harsher, less self-directed spotlights: Jackie, where she walks the line between public grief and private suffering as Jackie Kennedy in the aftermath of her husband’s assassination, and Vox Lux, in which she plays a young woman who emerges from the horror of a school shooting to become a volatile, self-destructive, globally beloved pop star.
Bringing insecure and abrasive performers to life in Black Swan and Vox Lux didn’t necessarily seem like a natural fit for Portman, who attracted some icky attention early on playing teenage characters in The Professional or Beautiful Girls who enter adult worlds with unexpected confidence and poise, which she convincingly sells as not remotely artificial (even when, as in Beautiful Girls and later Garden State, they’re screenplay fantasies). In those early films, and many of the movies she made as a young adult, Portman has a warmth and guilelessness that’s not especially confrontational. Black Swan toys with that image, as her Nina is especially a “nice” white swan attempting to will herself, through sheer striving mania, to eclipse her polite-little-girl veneer. Portman’s performance in Vox Lux, though, takes things further, all jabbing Staten Island accent and accessorized fidgeting. The uncharacteristically mannered work from Portman drives home the film’s depiction of fame as a destabilizing force, and performing as a desperate cry into the abyss that can turn unexpectedly, even inappropriately, triumphant.