Heavily inspired by the life of Mary Kay Letourneau (did you know she died the summer of 2020? Pretty nuts), May December finds a post-tabloid couple inching closer to the spotlight again, threatening to upend their seemingly contented life. Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore) seduced the underage Joe (Charles Melton, a revelation) when he had just finished seventh grade. When the affair was discovered, Gracie went to jail, where she gave birth to their first child. Decades later, the controversial pair are happily married with kids going off to college, playacting the perfect couple. Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman), a TV actress hoping to break into film by playing Gracie in an independent production, arrives in Savannah to shadow the family, trying to figure out what makes this woman tick. Elizabeth is drawn to the truth, while Gracie wants to make sure her side of the story is told. A delicate dance begins, with Joe trapped in the middle as he starts to consider the life that he never had the chance to live.
May December is crazy. It’s likely the best film of the year, and one of Todd Haynes’ best films. I’d argue the man has only made like 1.5 bad movies, but I digress. Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman have rarely been better, totally locked into Samy Burch’s script. Moore’s lisping is in the pantheon of crazy voices she does, as is Natalie’s subtle impression as the film goes on. Though no role is simple, Melton’s is perhaps the trickiest. To portray a man who’s never looked inwards wrestling with emotions he’s acknowledging for the very first time is no small feat. He’s a child in an adult’s body, but isn’t everyone? His physicality must be seen to be believed. If there is any justice, Charles Melton will handily walk away with the Best Supporting Actor trophy next spring. Similarly, Cory Michael Smith pops in a way I never expected as Gracie’s son Georgie from her previous marriage, a manchild much like Joe but in a far more extroverted way. He is electric.
Gracie and Elizabeth could not have been played by anyone other than Moore and Portman. There is nothing like watching two of the greatest actresses to ever live trade barbs and do each other’s makeup. There is an undercurrent of horror to everything that happens, but May December is also totally hysterical. Five minutes into the movie, the score drums dramatically as Gracie says “I don’t think we have enough hot dogs.” That line reassures us that we can laugh, even as we learn more about Gracie and Joe’s sordid history. I feel as though I’m rambling, but May December exists to short-circuit the critical mind, turning everything you believe on its head.
Should the Atherton-Yoo relationship exist? Everyone in town seems mostly fine with it, placating Gracie’s delusions in an attempt to keep the peace. The kids seem great, ready to leave home and start their own lives. Or perhaps this is just what every straight relationship feels like? Some sort of psychotic compromise, here taking the shape of child molestation turned happy home? I can’t help but feel like this is what Todd Haynes sees whenever he sees a straight couple. Much like Safe, Haynes is staring directly at an invisible sickness that hovers over America, a toxicity with straight culture at the center. I’m sure he also just thought it was funny to have Natalie Portman complain that the kid actors they’re trying to hire “aren’t sexy enough.” May December contains all of this and more, a puzzle box we will rotate in our minds forever.
Dir. Todd Haynes
Now playing at Kendall Square Cinema and streaming on Netflix