Out director Todd Haynes weaves a taboo tale of lust and mistrust based on real events that upend a family-oriented community…
“Insecure people are very dangerous, aren’t they?”
Openly gay director Todd Haynes has rarely shied away from controversy, with films like Carol and Far From Heaven exploring queer relationships and the consequences of actions during times when these relationships weren’t accepted. Haynes has directed several notable actors to Academy Award nominations, with frequent collaborator Julianne More at the top of the list. In May December, Haynes stretches these relationship hurdles by examining the illicit connection between a minor and a much older woman through the lens of an actor trying to understand her subject.
Natalie Portman stars as A-list actor Elizabeth Berry, the new star of a movie depicting the events of an inappropriate affair between the married Gracie Atherton (Julianne Moore) and 13-year-old Joe Yoo (Charles Melton) in the 1990s. Twenty years later, Gracie and Joe are married with three children and agree that Elizabeth studies them for her upcoming role. Elizabeth will play Gracie in a movie that examines the tabloid romance that made heads spin and sent Gracie to prison.
Elizabeth’s movie within the movie will take place during the early to mid-1990s when the affair began, and the method actress wants to learn everything about her subjects to tell their story better cinematically. As she enters their world and interviews friends, lawyers, and family members, she discovers the scandalous relationship is as sordid now as when it was illegal. She becomes infatuated with Gracie and Joe separately, crossing the boundaries of what is appropriate. The Juilliard-educated performer learns that Gracie is unapologetic about how the affair started and believes she’s done nothing wrong, as Joe begins to doubt their whirlwind romance and the trauma that runs deep inside him.
May December is a disturbing peak into a real-life case that gripped the United States. In 1997, teacher Mary Kay Letourneau fell in love with her 12-year-old student in Washington State, went to prison for having sex with him, and later married him and bore his children. Their story is perfectly designed for a made-for-television movie, but Haynes crafts a psychologically disturbing tale that juxtaposes seduction and trauma into a much deeper examination of the events and their aftermath.
What’s initially presented as a match made in heaven, despite the obvious controversy, is a relationship that devolves as Elizabeth digs deeper into the situation. Haynes engrosses his characters in sexual tension, with Elizabeth seemingly lustful for Gracie while seducing Joe on her own time. It’s a love triangle that bubbles to the surface to the tune of Marcelo Zarvos’ haunting piano score. As the film progresses, Elizabeth slowly becomes Gracie by dressing similarly to her, learning more about baking, and imitating Gracie’s childlike voice. It’s clear that Gracie has buried secrets and trauma of her own, and even though “hurt people hurt people,” Elizabeth can’t help but pry more to discover all the truths.
At times, the film feels uneasy about the events taking place, while there are times when sorrow for Gracie materializes. It’s unexpected and nuanced, though psychologically disturbing. Chaos is personified as Elizabeth descends into a messy method actor embodying Gracie’s younger self. She crosses a line over and over again.
May December might be Todd Haynes’ most poignant and emotionally troubling film to date. The director allows his actors to mix comedy and drama in genuine ways, never losing sight of the blurred lines in romantic partnerships. While Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman are bonafide veteran actors with Oscars on their mantles to prove it, Charles Melton’s broken spousal performance stands out amongst the three. The Riverdale alum hits his stride in a character inching towards a mental breakdown in the face of pure evil.
Though the real-life elements speak loudly to the disconcerting premise of this film, Haynes injects his stellar brand of camp into every piece of dialogue his characters speak. It’s a fine line in each scene straddled with tremendous grace by the three primary actors, especially when Portman thrusts herself into a role that could make the casual moviegoer uncomfortable. “What would make a 36 year old woman have an affair with a 7th grader?” is a question that’s never answered fully in May December, but the movie gives enough insight into an age-gap romance on the rocks.
May December will have a theatrical run in the United States and Canada beginning November 17 and streaming on Netflix on December 1.