I didn’t know what to expect going into May December, and I mean that in just about every sense. Although I had heard great things and was intrigued by the fact that it avoided a social media firestorm, I tempered my anticipation because I’m not a huge Todd Haynes fan. Now, though, I’d say this is the best film of his I’ve seen, partly because my character prominence presumptions were so interestingly subverted. I remember when Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore launched their separate lead and supporting campaigns, and I can now say that I fully agree with them, but I do take issue elsewhere.
I assert that Charles Melton is a secondary lead here (meaning he’s “less of a lead” than Portman) and should be considered leading under the binary categorization system. In this case, I’m backed up by the screen time data, which shows that Joe is significantly more present than Gracie, even if she arguably attracts more attention upon casual viewing. That’s where context comes into play, as one must realize that, although Gracie is an integral and captivating character, she simply isn’t assigned lead perspective and intentionally remains enigmatic. The plot in fact arises from both Elizabeth and Joe trying in vain to understand her by embarking on intertwined and equally important psychological journeys, the more fascinating of which turns out to be his.
To take it a step further, Joe moves through a more traditional character arc than Elizabeth, who, in spite of her unwaveringly strong POV, remains sort of an empty vessel in keeping with her identity as a Very Serious Actress. In the same vein, a limited amount of Joe’s thoughts and past and present actions are spelled out, but both characters are consistently afforded both silent and conversational moments that viewers can easily read into in order to comprehend their development. The main difference between them is that Joe doesn’t exactly start out as a lead character, as evidenced by this quarterly screen time percentage chart:
As you can see (and feel as you’re watching the film), Melton basically goes from being on Moore’s prominence level to Portman’s in a remarkably evenly-distributed way. I pored through my data trying to find a set of trajectories to compare theirs to, but I honestly couldn’t find a proper example. In a way, though, that makes both this film and Joe more special, and I must say that Melton’s lead placement feels more justified the more I think back on even the earliest portions of his performance.
To pivot a bit – screen time purists may not understand why I count Moore as supporting but Lily Gladstone (Killers of the Flower Moon) as leading given their similar (and relatively low) percentages of 29.37% and 27.29%. Basically, overall narrative is what matters most, and their characters serve very different purposes in very different stories. I view Ernest and Mollie Burkhart as complementary (a word I wouldn’t even apply to Elizabeth and Joe) protagonists whose conflicting perspectives continually shape their story in a way that makes deeming her supporting absurd. While we obviously don’t get to see as much of her, we consistently see more than enough, and she doesn’t seem to be getting enough credit for how present and active she actually is (only 12% of her screen time is spent sick in bed, y’all). I’m just glad her lead campaign is going so well, and I wish they’d been bold enough to enact one for Melton.