May December (United States, 2023)November 16, 2023
May December, loosely based on the Mary Kay Letourneau scandal from the late 1990s, examines the long-term impacts on the lives of those involved in an adult/child sexual relationship that evolves over a lengthy period. As presented through the lens of filmmaker Todd Haynes, the film is careful not to demonize the characters while illustrating that the psychological damage can remain hidden until something occurs to bring it to the fore. In this case, that “something” is the arrival of an actress, Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman), who has come to the Savannah home of Gracie Atherton (Julianne Moore) and Joe Yoo (Charles Melton), to study and interact with Gracie, who is the subject of an upcoming film project.
At the time the story transpires, the scandal is long behind but not entirely forgotten. At the age of 36, Gracie entered into a sexual relationship with Joe, the 13-year old friend of her son, Georgie. Gracie became pregnant, went to jail, had the baby while behind bars, then emerged from prison after serving her time. Once Joe was of age, the two married to raise not only their first-born, Honor (Piper Curda), but twin children, Charlie (Gabriel Chung) and Mary (Elizabeth Yu), who were born several years later. Now, in 2015, Honor is in college and Charlie and Mary are about to graduate from high school. Gracie, approaching 60 years of age, and Joe, in his mid-30s, have been together for more than two decades. They appear to be happily married until Elizabeth arrives and begin poking at the embers.
Although Natalie Portman gets first billing, Elizabeth isn’t so much a character as she is an observer, a catalyst, and an avatar. Portman’s most moving scene occurs when she’s in-character as Gracie, offering an explanation/defense for her actions. In many ways, Portman stands in for the audience, looking at the situation and trying to piece together not only what happened 20+ years ago but whether the current relationship is as rock-solid and loving as it appears to be.
As is his wont, Haynes mixes melodrama with elements of satire. In this case, the latter is muted and directed primarily at the Hollywood establishment. There’s a clear fascination with whether a sexual liaison between an adult and a minor might plant poisonous seeds that don’t germinate until later in life. May December doesn’t offer a definitive answer – there are times when the movie feels half-formed, ill-focused, and incomplete – but it probes the question in a way that is both unsettling and effective.
Although the story of Mary Kay Letourneau (and her victim/future husband, Vili Fualaau) provided the skeleton for May December, this is not a straightforward retelling. In this case, Joe is not (nor was he ever) Gracie’s student (she’s not a teacher). The characters’ ages are slightly different. And Letourneau died at roughly the age that Gracie is supposed to be. One key similarity that emerges, however (other than the core premise), is that Letourneau’s marriage started to break down after she had been with Fualaau for roughly 20 years.
Although the two central actors give strong performances, Melton merits specific mention. Joe undergoes radical-yet-believable shifts in a short term and these impact his relationships with his wife, children, and Elizabeth. Melton hits all the right notes, effectively finding the ambivalence in the situation. One of the oddest scenes in the movie focuses on the (faux) intimacy between Joe and Elizabeth and illustrates how unprepared he is for “adult” (as Elizabeth terms it) interactions.
Considering the controversial subject matter and the movie-going public’s seeming unwillingness to see serious-minded, “downer” films, May December’s availability through Netflix (after a short two-week limited theatrical run) should allow greater exposure for the production. Although not on the same level as Haynes’ best movie (2015’s Carol), this one highlights the director’s ability to explore complex and dysfunctional human relationships with insight and intelligence.
May December (United States, 2023)
Cast: Natalie Portman, Julianne Moore, Charles Melton, Gabriel Chung, Elizabeth Yu, Piper Curda
Screenplay: Samy Burch
Cinematography: Christopher Blauvelt
Music: Marcelo Zarvos
U.S. Distributor: Netflix
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