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Film Reviews: May December & Next Goal Wins

Arts Review2023-11-17By: Marc Glassman


Love and Loss

May December & Next Goal Wins

By Marc Glassman


May December

Todd Haynes, director

Samy Burch, script

Starring: Natalie Portman (Elizabeth Berry), Julianne Moore (Gracie Atherton-Yoo), Charles Melton (Joe Yoo), D.W. Moffett (Tom), Piper Curda (Honor), Elizabeth Yu (Mary)


It’s a funny thing about memory: anything might trigger it, whether it’s a scent or an image or a sound. In my case, it was the haunting melody from a score I had heard more than 50 years ago, which was evoked over and over again in Todd Haynes’ melodrama May December. The music, plaintive and repetitive, is by Michel Legrand and was composed for The Go-Between, a Joseph Losey and Harold Pinter adaptation of an L.P. Hartley novel about the traumatic effect on a boy who passes love letters between a couple having an illicit affair. If Hartley is remembered at all, it’s because of the poetic opening line of The Go-Between: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”

Certainly, the main characters in May December have done something so different that many people will never forgive them. Thirty years ago, Gracie Atherton (Julianne Moore), a wife, mother and respected member of her strait-laced Georgia community, was caught having sex with 13-year-old Korean American Joe Yoo (Charles Melton) in the pet shop where she was the manager. The scandal reached national proportions and Gracie spent years in prison as a sex offender but when she was freed, the two got together and married. They have three children, products of their illegal liaison, with the younger two—twins–about to graduate high school.

Haynes takes up the narrative at this important juncture, when Joe and Gracie are beginning to realize that they will be empty nesters, getting to know each other again without children as distractions. Suddenly, though, they find themselves acting as hosts and facilitators for Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman), an ambitious highly regarded TV actress who will be playing Gracie in an up-coming film about their notorious case. 

May December is propelled through the character of Elizabeth, an intense woman, who acts almost as an investigator, wanting to know as much as possible about Joe and Gracie in an almost unsettlingly manner. Haynes’ camera follows Elizabeth as she talks with Gracie’s first husband, who raised their children without her after the scandal; the lawyer who tried to get her off at the trial; and Georgie, Gracie’s disturbing older son, who had been Joe’s best friend before the affair took place. Through it all, Gracie seems oddly opaque: cheerful on the outside while refusing to examine her own feelings deeply about her sensational life. Joe, too, is hard to read: seemingly a nice guy, who barbeques burgers and hot dogs on the grill and is endlessly supportive of his wife and children. 

At first, you’d think that Elizabeth is crazy, examining their lives in such detail, but soon enough, fissures in Gracie and Joe’s life begin to crack open. Joe becomes more emotional with his son especially after they smoke pot together for the first time while Gracie gets angry with Elizabeth’s constant questions and is frostily polite with her daughter who is clearly upset while getting ready for her formal high school graduation. It all leads up to an intimate scene between Elizabeth and Joe, which only reveals that both are stuck in their personal trajectories, one as an actor, the other as someone working out his trauma way late in life.

Ever the auteur and lover of cinema, Haynes isn’t content with referencing The Go-Between. As the film progresses, he moves into deeper terrain, offering up the brilliant Persona, Ingmar Bergman’s psychological masterpiece, in which two women appear to exchange identities. That’s what happens between Elizabeth and Gracie, as the actor seeks to replace the real person with a more self-aware version of herself. In an extraordinary scene, Gracie puts on “her” make-up as the two uncomfortably try to resemble each other, at least in terms of appearance.

Portman and Moore dominate May December: they are brilliant performers and probably inspired to challenge each other. Since Black Swan, Portman has shown a predilection towards discovering the darker side of characters and this time is no exception. Something within Elizabeth wants to understand Gracie more than the actual sex offender desires to comprehend herself. That’s fascinating—as is Julianne Moore’s choice to play Gracie as a character all on the surface: skittish, controlling, talkative. It’s only in the final scene that Haynes allows her to reveal that Gracie, too, is deeper than we’ve been allowed to think.

The notion of May and December romances used to be accepted as odd but not criminal behaviour. If Michel Legrand’s score haunts May December, another song filters through my mind, the immortal Kurt Weill’s composition, “September Song,” with lyrics by Maxwell Anderson. Let’s contemplate it as we think of Todd Hayne’s memorable and problematic film:


“Oh, it’s a long, long while from May to December

But the days grow short when you reach September

When the autumn weather turns the leaves to flame

One hasn’t got time for the waiting game.


Oh, the days dwindle down to a precious few

September, November

And these few precious days I’ll spend with you

These precious days I’ll spend with you.”


Next Goal Wins

Taika Waititi, director and co-script w/Iain Morris

Starring: Michael Fassbender (Thomas Rongen), Oscar Kightley (Tavita), Kaimana (Jaiyah Saelua), David Fane (Ace), Rachel House (Ruth), Will Arnett (Alex Magnussen), Elisabeth Moss (Gail)

Most of us who watch international football, or soccer as it’s called in North America, will find it hard to believe that a team sanctioned by the governing body FIFA (Federation Internationale de Football Association) could lose a match 31 to nil. But sure enough, it happened in 2001, when American Samoa lost to Australia in a World Cup qualifying match by that score. That humiliation put American Samoa on the map as the ultimate loveable losers in a global game. 

Memorable sporting tales always involve emotional twists, and so is the case for American Samoa.  In one of those tales of fate and courage beloved by athletic supporters, a mere ten years, later, the Samoan team beat Tonga in another Cup qualifying tournament—their first victory in 38 matches.

The story of American Samoa’s shocking victory and how that came about has inspired Taika Waititi to make Next Goal Wins, one of those underdog sporting tales beloved of producers, broadcasters, and potentially, a world-wide audience.

Global football is a team sport, which often involves an inspiring coach. Such is the tale of Next Goal Wins where an angry hard-drinking coach was able to inspire a team of amateurs to learn how to play “the beautiful game” at least reasonably well, while learning they all learned life lessons.

Taika Waititi, the immensely talented Māori Jewish director and actor who stunned the world with Jojo Rabbit, a dark comedy about the Holocaust, chose Next Goal Wins as his personal project. The idea must have seen to be perfect: a sports story set in a beautiful Polynesian island involving redemption and trust. What could go wrong?

Well, nearly everything turned out badly. Michael Fassbender replaced Armie Hammer as coach Thomas Rongen, the angry Dutch American, and simply mailed in his performance. Having just seen Fassbender being similarly ineffectual in David Fincher’s The Killer, it may be time to ask, ‘What’s happened to the brilliant actor of Hunger and Shame?’ He’s become a race-car driver and the devoted husband of Alicia Vikander—and who can blame him? Except Waititi and Fincher, who might have expected more from an actor previously known for his intense performances.

Next Goal Wins should be a “duck out of water” tale, in which an unhappy coach finds himself in the laidback beautiful surroundings of American Samoa. There’s lots of room for comedy as Fassbender’s character must put up with the island’s absurdly low automotive speed limits and easy-going attitudes towards everything from shopping to gender relations. Comedy arises out of conflict and misunderstanding but Fassbender seems so befuddled and unengaged that the humour in even well-constructed scenes fail to come off. 

The one thing that Waititi does give us is the remarkable real-life tale of Jaiyah Saelua, who became the world’s first transgender football player to appear in World Cup competitions. As played by Kaimana, who is non-binary and identifies as a fa’afafine (a third gender commonly accepted on the island), Jaiyeh is the most appealing character in the film. 

The best that can be said about Next Goal Wins is that the film is pleasant. The surroundings of American Samoa (although actually shot in Hawaii) are pleasant and the story is amusing. But for Taika Waititi, this film is a terrible disappointment. My advice? Wait to see it on Prime, when it becomes available on stream.



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