A must-watch for anyone looking to catch the films that will appear on this year’s awards circuit, May December turns a salacious tabloid tale into a heart-wrenching drama everyone will be talking about.

May December introduces us to Gracie (Julianne Moore) and Joe (Charles Melton), a suburban couple who (on the outside at least) seem perfectly average, except for their noticeable age gap. Their friends and neighbors assure us Gracie and Joe are happy, but no one much likes to talk about their past. Because two decades ago, Gracie and Joe began their relationship when Joe was only 13.

When their secret was exposed, then-36-year-old Gracie went to prison. There, she gave birth to their first child. Now, decades later, Gracie’s out of jail and the pair are married, raising twins about to head off to college. Then, Elizabeth (Natalie Portman) arrives; she’s set to play Gracie in a movie, and wants to ingratiate herself into their lives as research for her role. Inexplicably, Gracie agrees to the arrangement. But the more Elizabeth presses at the old wounds of their scandal, the more things begin to fall apart.

May December comes from writer Samy Burch and Oscar-nominated director Todd Haynes.

May December Has Some Of The Best Performances Of The Year

I don’t have to tell you Julianne Moore is a great actor. You already know. So does director Todd Haynes, who worked with Moore before and recommended her for the film. So perhaps unsurprisingly, Moore indeed proved an inspired choice to play Gracie. 

Moore certainly knows how to craft a character. Her work in building out Gracie is undeniable; she has such distinctive speaking patterns and mannerisms, her character feels like a person someone was born to play, and gives Portman’s Elizabeth plenty to delve into. She also walks a careful tightrope, knowing that audiences will see Gracie as a predator, but that Gracie herself doesn’t see things that way. (“He seduced me,” she insists at one point.) She’s in total command one moment, deftly weaponizing innocence and femininity, then falls apart over some seemingly innocuous inconvenience the next. As the viewer, you’re always trying to understand Gracie, but Moore knows to only give you glimpses and keep you guessing.

Actors playing actors is very hit-or-miss, but Portman in May December absolutely nails it. It’s fascinating to watch her, in character as Elizabeth, track, monitor, and mimic Gracie’s unique quirks. What’s more, Portman escalates Elizabeth’s behavior expertly, transforming from curious observer (much like the audience) to outright monster.

At first, Elizabeth approaches learning about Gracie and Joe cautiously: gentle questions, dancing around some of the more difficult bits, curious but with a respectful distance. But the longer Elizabeth stays with the couple, the more she immerses herself in Gracie’s life, the more manipulative her methods become. Eventually, she’s not so much carefully poking bruises of their battered past as she is twisting the knife in deeper, hungry to transform their pain into her art. May December is undoubtedly one of Portman’s best performances, up there with Black Swan

Sealing the deal in this incredible trifecta of performances: Charles Melton. If you only know Melton from Riverdale, you’re in for a treat. He gives a powerful, nuanced performance in May December that deserves to make the rounds this awards season. Everything Melton does — from the way he speaks to the way he holds himself — paints a picture of Joe as a man who’s never fully been able to grow up and find his own identity. He knows how to go through the motions. But is he where he wants to be? Or just where he’s always known?

Joe’s slow realization of the trappings of his life, the awakening caused by Elizabeth’s arrival and prodding, is absolutely heartbreaking. Joe serves as the film’s much-needed reminder of the humanity buried under layers of salacious drama; Melton is the beating heart of the film.

The spectacle of humanity

Beyond its incredible cast, May December works because it knows itself. This movie understands your preconceived notions going into the story, and uses those to build drama while hooking your emotions in a way that jerks the rug out from under you. 

May December is aware of its tabloid-headline-worthy premise, the salaciousness of the crime, the soap-opera-like lives of its characters. And sometimes, it plays those up; the urgent, melodramatic music that could score a Lifetime drama; the characters who try to explain Gracie’s behavior, like they can hear the audience begging to know why; even the very fact that we feel entitled to answers about Gracie and Joe to begin with.

But the further we dive into the story, the more our perspective shifts from distant observers of criminal spectacle to something much closer to home. The more we try to unravel the layers of Gracie, only to find there may not be more than meets the eye to find; the more brutal Elizabeth becomes in her mimicry, the more Joe unravels and falls apart before us — it all becomes a lot more real. As these characters begin holding a mirror up to one another, the movie holds one up to the audience. The question is, can we ever objectively see all of ourselves? And if we could, would we want to?

May December begins streaming on Netflix December 1.