Entertainment Magazine

Age Gap

Posted on the 26 May 2024 by Sjhoneywell
Film: May December
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on various players. Age Gap

I have never been shy about the fact that age gap relationships in film really bother me. I don’t understand why Hollywood still seems to believe that having women in their 20s and 30s actively pursuing relationships with men in their 50s and 60s. This comes with the knowledge that I know of several relationships like this in real life. My wife’s cousin is married to a woman who is several decades older than he is, and that is the kind of relationship that we’re going to be investigating in May December. The difference is that my wife’s cousin met his wife when he was in his 30s and she was in her 50s. In May December, we’re looking at a relationship that began when she was in her 30s and he was…13.

And that is the story of May December. Actress Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman) goes to Savannah, Georgia to research an upcoming role. That role is as Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore), a woman caught having an affair with a 13-year-old boy named Joe. Gracie was sent to prison for this clear abuse of a child, and while in prison gave birth to that boy’s child. And, then when she was released from prison, she married him, and 23 years later, is still married to Joe (Charles Melton).

And, well, that’s the story. Elizabeth tries to get at the heart of the story and explores the Atherton-Yoo family and what happened to them. This includes meeting Gracie’s ex-husband Tom (D.W. Moffett) and their son Georgie (Cory Michael Smith), who is the same age as Joe Yoo, and was, in fact, his friend. As it happens, Gracie and Joe also have twins who are preparing to graduate from high school, as is a grandchild of Gracie’s. It also means that Joe is preparing to be an empty-nester at 36.

This is not a film that has a tremendous amount of plot. It is essentially a trio of character studies—Gracie, Joe, and Elizabeth trying to understand Gracie and Joe. A lot of that, or at least some of that is going to come from the people around them. The family, and essentially the extended family, lives on an island off the coast of Savannah (Tybee, Wilmington, or Whitemarsh would be my guess, but I don’t think it’s mentioned), and despite what she did, Gracie seems to be more or less accepted in the community. The kids certainly are, or appear to be, despite the strange reality of their parents’ relationship.

The impression we get of both Gracie and Joe is one of a sort of arrested development. Gracie appears to be passive in a lot of ways, not really fully understanding what she did was wrong and not really understanding why other people don’t move past it. She bakes for people, running a small business out of her home, but it turns out that her customer base is very small and tends to order the same thing week after week. Gracie is also convinced that 23 years previous, Joe seduced her, a married woman in her 30s. There is a particular detachment from reality in Gracie that defines her.

Joe arrested development is perhaps easier to understand. In many ways, the most seminal moment of his life (no pun intended) happened at 13, and he became a father in middle school. In some respects, he’s always going to be that 13-year-old boy and won’t ever really be anything else. Joe is naïve in many ways because of this experience—it’s prevented him from anything like normal development as a person, and there seems to be a streak of not so much vulnerability but just not understanding the world around him much.

This lack of growth in both of them, both Gracie and Joe seems suspended in time from 23 years previous, is what makes this so upsetting. I don't really have a huge issue with age gap relationships in the real world, depending on the situation. As I said, my wife's cousin and his spouse are several decades apart in age, but, importantly, they both met when they were adults. Guys like (say) Leo DiCaprio or Anthony Kiedis dating women half or a third of their age, girls fresh out of high school, is a level of creepy that I find unconscionable. There is a difference, and that difference is all the difference.

As for Elizabeth, she seems to want to understand things, but also seems to want to be seen. In one scene, she talks to the drama club at the high school and fields questions in a James Lipton/Inside the Actors’ Studio sense and is asked about sex scenes. Rather than putting off the question, she gets very involved in it, talking up to the point of explicitly to a group of minors. It’s clearly inappropriate, but also seems to be clearly a chance for her to stay in the spotlight.

May December is an unpleasant movie in a lot of respects, but this is not uncommon for Todd Haynes. It was a film that very much made me want to shower when it was done. It’s acted well, filmed well, directed well, and terribly upsetting in a skin-crawl-y way. There’s no way for me to fully understand that mindset, and no situation I can see that makes me want to.

Why to watch May December: You need an excuse to watch Natalie Portman?
Why not to watch: Wow, is it hard to watch.

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