May December is a richly layered, melodramatic but deliberately ambiguous character study from director Todd Haynes (Carol). The film was inspired by the real-life case of Mary Kay Letourneau, a 34-year-old schoolteacher who was convicted of abusing her 13-year-old student. After completing her jail sentence for statutory rape, she married her teenage victim and started a family. The story provided plenty of fodder for the tabloids at the time (the late 1990s).
In the film we meet her fictional counterpart, a woman named Gracie Atherton-Yoo (played by Julianne Moore, a regular in Haynes’ films). Her life was ruined by her actions which robbed her victim of a normal childhood. During her prison term, Gracie gave birth to a son. After serving out her sentence Gracie married her younger victim Joe (Charles Melton) and the couple produced two more children, twins. Nearly two decades later, they are leading a fairly normal life raising their three children – until they learn that Hollywood is planning to make a movie about their scandalous past.
Famous actress Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman) has been cast as Gracie. Elizabeth is the star of Norah’s Ark, a moderately successful television show. In an effort to really gain an understanding of her character, she arrives at the family home in Savannah to study her and “get under her skin.”
Elizabeth also sets about interviewing family and friends hoping to gain more intimate insights. But the dynamic between the two women – the quiet Gracie and the egocentric and narcissistic Elizabeth – causes plenty of friction. Their antagonistic relationship drives the drama. Elizabeth soon begins to take on Gracie’s mannerisms and posture and even mimics her lisp, which emerges in times of stress.
May December is the first feature script from husband-and-wife team Samy Burch (a former casting director) and Alex Mechanik (a former editor). They previously collaborated on the script for the award winning 2017 short film Crown Prince. This is a slow, subtle and morally ambiguous drama. The audience is never quite sure if Gracie is a predator or a victim. Haynes doesn’t provide easy answers, nor does he judge his characters. But, somehow, he makes the audience feel like voyeurs peering through the window.
The film is also an examination of the creative process and questions why an actress of Elizabeth’s reputation would choose to play such an unsympathetic character. It also follows how she prepares for such a challenging role. In one scene, Elizabeth explains her choice of roles to students in an acting class workshop. “I want to find a character who, on the surface, is hard to understand. Were they born or were they made?” she says. May December also deals with themes of identity and how we see ourselves. Gracie doesn’t see herself as a predator, while Joe doesn’t see himself as a victim.
Haynes has always drawn solid performances from his female stars in the past. Both Portman (Thor: Love and Thunder) and Moore (Dear Evan Hansen) are strong in their respective roles. Slowly Haynes strips back the protective outer layers of his characters to depict them in a less than flattering light. Moore brings a brittle quality to her performance; while Portman brings a steely quality to her character. Joe seems in many ways to still be a naive youngster and Melton (from the TV series Poker Face) imbues his character with a touching vulnerability and captures his emotional turmoil.
Cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt (First Cow) has shot the film in autumnal tones. Marcelo Zarvos’s overly melodramatic score borrows from Joseph Losey’s 1971 film The Go-Between, which underscores one of the themes.
May December is a disturbing psychological drama but it doesn’t provide easy answers. It deliberately lacks any really dramatic moments, and the languid pacing means a lack of urgency.
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Greg King has had a life long love of films. He has been reviewing popular films for over 15 years. Since 1994, he has been the film reviewer for BEAT magazine. His reviews have also appeared in the Herald Sun newspaper, S-Press, Stage Whispers, and a number of other magazines, newspapers and web sites. Greg contributes to The Blurb on film