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FilmWatch Weekly: Todd Haynes’ ‘May December,’ plus ‘Cat Person,’ ‘Rustin,’ and ‘Next Goal Wins’

Portland-based director Todd Haynes' latest feature is an elusive melodrama with strong performances from Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore.

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Natalie Portman as Elizabeth Berry and Julianne Moore as Gracie Atherton-Yoo in May December.
(Left to right) Natalie Portman as Elizabeth Berry and Julianne Moore as Gracie Atherton-Yoo in “May December.” Cr. Francois Duhamel / courtesy of Netflix

The new film from Todd Haynes, May December, is a subtle, tricky number that uses narrative sleight of hand to pose unanswered (and maybe unanswerable) questions about the nature of identity and performance. In the process, it showcases two of Hollywood’s consummate performers in award-caliber roles.

The setup itself may be unpalatable for some. Screenwriter Samy Burch, a casting director by trade whose first produced feature this is, draws inspiration from the tabloid-fodder case of Mary Kay Letourneau, the Seattle-area schoolteacher who was convicted of second-degree rape of a child after having sex with a 12-year-old student in 1997. What distinguished her case from others was that she and the student, Vili Fualaau, resumed their relationship after her release from prison, marrying in 2005 and remaining together until the year before her death in 2020. They had two children together, and Fualaau never, during their time together, claimed to be a victim.

What Burch’s script and Haynes’ film suppose is that a similar couple, twenty-plus-years different in age, is now living a typical suburban life in Savannah, Georgia, seemingly content and accepted by their neighbors. Gracie (Julianne Moore) and Joe (Charles Melton of TV’s Riverdale) seem to have put all the scandal and tumult behind them, until the day TV star Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman) comes to town to research her role as Gracie in an upcoming production. A simpler movie would have merely used this inciting incident to explore the hidden and/or repressed feelings of the infamous couple and others affected by their saga. But that’s just where May December gets started.

At their first meeting, after Gracie notices their similarity in height, Elizabeth responds, “We’re basically the same.” It’s an almost too-blunt preview of the insidious ways that Elizabeth invades the (apparent) domestic bliss during the last week before the couple’s youngest two children graduate high school—our culture’s most pivotal moment between childhood and adulthood. There are, as acknowledged by Haynes, strong echoes of Bergman’s Persona here, most evident in scenes such as the one where Gracie shows Elizabeth how she applies makeup. Both actresses face the camera/mirror and the actor’s mannerisms gradually conform to those of the woman she’s to play. A long, tracking two-shot as the pair walk through a park and converse adds to the classical structure, and the use of a score adapted from Michel Legrand’s tense, percussive piano score from 1971’s The Go-Betweens provides that Haynesian melodramatic aura.

Some of the metaphorical distinctions between Joe and Gracie are a bit on the nose: For instance, his hobby is providing milkweed habitats for Monarch butterfly chrysalises, while hers is shooting quail for dinner. And it’s not lost on Joe that the interloping celebrity (who has apparently made her name by playing a veterinarian on a show called Nora’s Ark) is just about the same age as both himself and his wife when they first met. (Meanwhile, clips from present-day casting videos for the role of Joe are the only sense we get of what he was like back then.)

As in films such as Black Swan, Vox Lux, Closer, and Jackie, Portman excels at playing characters that are also playing roles, and you can feel her enjoying that multi-dimensional challenge here, even at the risk of seeming to show off. This is her first non-Marvel feature in four years, and she’s sure to be on the Oscar short lists. Her talent is alchemical, and May December is a film where the big effects scenes are the ones where the stars are allowed to do their thing. Which is, of course, to shine.

The movie may be off-putting to some, not only because of its inspiration, but because it asks questions without answering them. It’s a beguiling and curious film, the best from Portland-based Haynes in years. (Opens Friday, Nov. 17 at the Hollywood Theatre and the Salem Cinema before streaming on Netflix starting December 1. Some Hollywood shows are on 35mm.)

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It says something about May December that the romantic relationship depicted in Cat Person is only the second-most dysfunctional in this week’s column. This adaptation of the viral 2017 New Yorker short story by Kristen Roupenian about an intensely awkward date between a college student and an older man, and its immediate fallout, makes for an interesting companion piece in that it ponders, among other things, what effect an age gap has on a sexual relationship even when the younger participant is of legal age.

Like May December, its screenplay was written by a woman, in this case Michelle Ashford (TV’s Masters of Sex). She made the bold and mostly beneficial decision to extend the story of Margot (Emilia Jones), a college sophomore working at the local art house theater, and Robert (Nicholas Braun, aka Cousin Greg from Succession), beyond the end of the story. After a brief in-person flirtation results in the exchange of numbers, Margot and Robert develop a text-message rapport that leads to a date to see The Empire Strikes Back (of which Robert can recite every line of dialogue). This, in turn, and despite the protestations of Margot’s best friend Taylor (Geraldine Viswanathan), leads her to spend the night at Robert’s, a night that makes it clear he is not the prize he seemed from afar.

Thus, the moral dilemma of Cat Person. Robert pursues the relationship, and Margot, feeling bad for him, hesitates to bluntly tell him she’s not interested. After all, he’s got cats—even though she can’t recall seeing one when she was there. Is he an incel sociopath in sheep’s clothing? Or just a harmless schlub who’s terrible in bed? And is that a distinction without a difference to Margot, who doesn’t want much to do with him either way?

I almost wish that viewers were forced to indicate whether or not they’ve read the story before seeing the film, so as to judge the difference that makes in their evaluation of it. The film, directed by Susanna Fogel (writer of the hilarious Booksmart), necessarily fleshes things out, adding not only the best friend character, but also a mentoring professor (Isabella Rossellini) and Margot’s mom (Hope Davis) to the mix. This gives the character of Margot more footing, but spinning out the story also provides more texture to Tom.

The third act also increases the stakes drastically, in a way that feels like the product of advice from screenwriting software. And the final shot will be a discussion topic for any couple unwise enough to make this a first-date movie. Cat Person’s premiere at January’s Sundance Film Festival was highly anticipated, but it remained without a distributor for a curiously long time, leading to fears it was a disaster. It most certainly is not that. Instead, it’s a finely honed, only moderately exaggerated look at the terrors of 21st-century courtship. (At least, from what I’ve heard.)

Malcolm got his movie. Martin has had a few. Medgar Evers, Fred Hampton, Thurgood Marshall, and many other civil rights leaders have gotten the biopic treatment. The reasons that it’s taken this long to get a movie based on the life of Bayard Rustin may be the same reasons he was shunned by segments of the movement during his lifetime, or they may not. But it is curious that one of the last major figures in the 20th-century push for racial equality to have their story told is the one who was openly gay. Colman Domingo does an admirable job in Rustin, which brings about as much dramatic immediacy as possible to the tale of a figure whose genius was as much logistical as inspirational. He’s a flamboyant, impassioned, intersectional hero who stood up to the civil rights establishment and played a pivotal role in the organization of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

Director George C. Wolfe (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) and screenwriters Dustin Lance Black (Milk) and Julian Breece incorporate a number of other historical figures into the action. Among the notables depicted are NAACP boss Roy Wilkins (Chris Rock), union leader A. Philip Randolph (Glynn Turman), pioneering Black feminist Anna Hedgeman (CCH Pounder), and Representative Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. (Jeffrey Wright), whose life could easily support a feature-length biopic of its own. Dramatically, this is pretty standard stuff; but as a desperately needed history lesson, it’s essential. (Streaming on Netflix Friday, Nov. 17)

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Writer-director-producer-star Taika Waititi’s career to this point has been a case study in whiplash. After a humble beginning in the indie film world with Boy and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, he burst into the mainstream with Thor: Ragnarok, which brought much-needed levity to that franchise, and Jojo Rabbit, which demonstrated a willingness to push boundaries by, say, playing Hitler as an imaginary best friend. His MCU follow-up, Thor: Love and Thunder, was not as regarded, but at the same time his series Our Flag Means Death earned kudos as a moving, funny, queer-friendly version of the pirate life. If that makes it seem like he’s due for a downturn, well…

Next Goal Wins is based on the true story of the national soccer team of American Samoa, which suffered the worst loss in World Cup qualifying history against Australia. (It was 31-0, which would be a beating even in American football.) Cue the inspirational music, as, in true The Mighty Ducks fashion, a disgraced coach (here played by Michael Fassbender) gets saddled with the Sisyphean task of turning these losers into winners. Or at least getting them to the point where they can score a single solitary goal.

There’s a 2014 documentary about these events, which sadly does not appear to be available to stream. It’s approximately eighteen times more entertaining than this sorry excuse for an inspirational sports comedy. Fassbender emotes almost as little as he does playing a stoic hit man in The Killer; the jokes are predictable and misguided, and Waititi embarrasses himself in a cartoonish cameo as a local priest. Elisabeth Moss plays Fassbender’s ex-wife, Will Arnett pops in as his annoying boss, and nobody really seems to be aware of what type of humor they’re going for. (Opens Friday, Nov. 17 at multiple theaters)

ALSO THIS WEEK

The Art of Burning Man: Veteran, award-winning Portland filmmaker and animator Joanna Priestley presents a live digital image show that celebrates the immense creativity found at the Burning Man Festival. She will also screen Fleeting Marvels, her new film about the festival, and the Portland premiere of her recent work, The Jung and the Restless. (OMSI’s Empirical Theater, Saturday, Nov. 18)

DOC NOW! Fest: PAM CUT offers an intriguing set of double features, each of which pairs an episode of the Fred Armisen and Bill Hader IFC mockumentary series with the iconic documentary that inspired it. Come witness loving but hilarious tributes to Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present, Grey Gardens, and Faces/Places. (Tomorrow Theater, Friday and Saturday)

Still Sparkling: A Twilight Fan Event: All five (were there really five?) films in the saga of Edward (Robert Pattinson) and Bella (Kristen Stewart) will screen over the weekend, offering a chance to revisit the two stars before they went on to unexpectedly fascinating careers. Plus trivia, costume contests, and more Twihard mania. (Kiggins Theatre, Friday through Sunday)

Cronenberg2: Following up on a father-and-son retrospective celebrating George and Panos Cosmatos, this five-film fest tips a cap in the direction of Brandon Cronenberg and his proud papa David. Details in daily schedule below. (Cinemagic)

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FRIDAY

  • Big Shark: The latest madness from the mind of cult favorite Tommy Wiseau gets an encore screening. (Cinema 21)
  • The Fly [1986] (Cinemagic, also Saturday & Wednesday)
  • Night of the Living Dead [1968] (Hollywood, through Sunday, on 35mm)
  • Possessor [2020] (Cinemagic, also Saturday)

SATURDAY

  • Automorphosis [2009] is director Harrod Blank’s cinematic love letter to art car culture; it screens with Portland filmmaker Greg Hamilton’s Thou Shall Not Tailgate! [2018], a portrait of one such enthusiast, the unforgettable Rev. Chuck Linville. Both filmmakers will be on hand for a post-film discussion and Q&A. (Clinton Street)
  • Baby Face [1933] features one of Barbara Stanwyck’s best early performances, and considering her prolific pre-Code filmography, that’s saying something. (Cinema 21, 11 a.m.)
  • Chicken Run [2000] (Academy, all week)
  • Hardcore [1979] (Academy, all week)
  • Infinity Pool [2022, uncut version] (Cinemagic, also Sunday & Monday)

SUNDAY

  • A History of Violence [2005] (Cinemagic, also Tuesday)
  • Paranorman [2012] (Hollywood)

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MONDAY

  • Beyond Walls is a collection of five short films that aim to explain the idea of the Prison Industrial Complex and explore the possibilities of the prison abolition movement. (Clinton Street)
  • The Talented Mr. Ripley [1999] (Hollywood, on 35mm)

TUESDAY

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Marc Mohan moved to Portland from Wisconsin in 1991, and has been exploring and contributing to the city’s film culture almost ever since, as the manager of the landmark independent video store Trilogy, the owner of Portland’s first DVD-only rental spot, Video Vérité; and as a freelance film critic for The Oregonian for nearly twenty years. Once it became apparent that “newspaper film critic” was no longer a sustainable career option, he pursued a new path, enrolling in the Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College in the fall of 2017 and graduating cum laude in 2020 with a specialization in Intellectual Property. He now splits his time between his practice with Vérité Law Company and his continuing efforts to spread the word about great (and not-so-great) movies, which include a weekly column at Oregon ArtsWatch.

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