The line in question comes toward the end of the film, which is structured around the premise that a film is being made about Gracie. The actress who has been hired to play Gracie, Natalie Portman’s Elizabeth, has undertaken a research visit to Savannah, where Gracie and Joe live. Elizabeth’s presence opens fissures in the relationship between Gracie and Joe, and ultimately leads to a betrayal. During the late-night confrontation that follows, Joe, in a tearful epiphany, finally begins to entertain what to everyone else is a foregone conclusion: He may not have been mature enough to make the decisions he did as a 13-year-old boy. “You seduced me,” Gracie retorts, scoldingly, in a textbook example of self-delusion. “Who was in charge?” she demands. “Who was in charge?”
If at that point you find yourself wanting to stand up in the theater and shout at the screen, “You were!,” you would not be alone. (Dear reader, it was all I could do to restrain myself.) Yes, the film is filled with self-delusion and unethical behavior, not just on Gracie’s part, but Elizabeth’s. As the actress pokes, probes and pries into Gracie’s psyche, mannerisms and family history, we find a trail littered with broken people: not only Gracie and Joe, but their kids, and Gracie’s kids from her first marriage, one of whom (Cory Michael Smith) admits that his mother’s behavior “ruined” his life.
The question “Who was in charge?” echoes throughout the film, even before it’s asked. In the very first scene, we meet Gracie and Joe as they’re preparing a family barbecue. At first, the dynamic seems ambiguous: closer to that between a mom and her barely adult son than a wife and her husband. Grace orders Joe to help set the table, at another point telling him to “keep an eye on things” as their kids burst into the living room, all adolescent energy. If you’ve entered the film without knowing the backstory, the revelation that Gracie and Joe are married, not domineering mother and obedient son, comes as a shock.
But the real answer to the question of who’s in charge is Haynes. Throughout the film, the director plays the audience like an accordion, pushing buttons and pulling and squeezing us into feeling things — disgust, ironic laughter, confusion, voyeuristic guilt, genuine curiosity — like a master. It’s not clear whether we’re meant to laugh or roll our eyes at the film score: all intrusive, melodramatic piano and strings, like something out of a bad, vintage soap opera. But it’s obvious it’s mean to provoke. There’s nothing accidental about “May December,” which puts the audience — and our own prejudices — under the klieg lights, along with Gracie’s.
But there are so many questions. Starting with: Will Ferrell? The presence of the comedian’s Gloria Sanchez Productions, the company behind this film — as well such goofball fare as “Strays,” “Theater Camp” and “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” — might lead one to believe this is a comedy. But it’s a strange subject for satire, let alone high-minded drama.
At times, “May December” feels like an interrogation of the elusive nature of truth. Elizabeth keeps justifying her research trip to Gracie’s home as an attempt to capture “something true.” And when she finally starts shooting the film — only after she has mastered Gracie’s slight, childlike lips, and walked away from her fact-finding mission with a handwritten copy of one of Gracie’s embarrassingly adolescent love letters to Joe — she insists, during the filming of a cheesy seduction scene involving a live snake, on reshooting the scene, over and over. It feels like it’s getting more and more real, she says, with every cringing take.
That may be so for her. For the rest of us, the whole thing just feels really, really sad.
R. At area theaters; available Dec. 1 on Netflix. Contains some sexuality, graphic nudity, drug use and strong language. 117 minutes.