It would be one thing for someone to have their life portrayed onscreen by an A-list actor, and another to invite that actor into their home for accuracy, to make sure they get the story straight. But it would be something else entirely for a convicted child sex offender to do the same, especially if that offender, over 20 years later, was raising kids with their now mid-30s victim-turned-husband in a prototypical American suburb. But that’s Gracie Atherton-Yoo for you, and she’s hardly fiction.
Todd Haynes’ May December pulls from a popular ’90s scandal wherein 34-year-old teacher Mary Kay Letourneau had sex with her 12-year-old student, birthed their baby while awaiting her sentence, went to prison, got parole, broke a restraining order to see him again, went back to prison, had another child behind bars, got out after seven years, married the student, raised a family with him, and was eventually left by him 14 years into their marriage. It’s not the exact story of May December, but the differences are negligible––twins instead of children a year apart, some shuffled details. And most importantly, the addition of Natalie Portman.
In Samy Burch’s lean screenplay, we learn about Gracie’s (Julianne Moore in her fifth collaboration with Haynes) scandal through conversational context and a quick-cut montage of tabloids and clippings. When we meet her, with things settled down, she’s a super-mom type who busies herself around the clock so as to not have time to think about certain things, or at least not so deeply. She’s smiley, kinetic, overconfident, unapologetic, and “she always knows what she wants.”
When Joe (Charles Melton) enters frame for the first time, he seems like the pool boy. Maybe a son? Until Gracie calls him a pet name and they kiss. All praise to the casting director for finding the least dad-like dad of all time in Melton, a move that is responsible for so much of the well-placed discomfort we feel when we see him trying to do dad things.
In one of the funnier, sweeter scenes, Joe admits to his high school son that he’s never tried weed. His son lets him have some and the directive of the father-son relationship is reversed. It’s like his kids don’t even see him as a dad. And it makes sense. He met Gracie when he was in middle school, a shy boy who felt “different” than the other kids and was unliked by girls. But felt seen by Gracie.
Haynes doesn’t seem too concerned with details outside of the major beats and the opportunities to zoom in on particular moments––like Gracie and Joe’s pet shop stock-room hookup the summer after his 7th-grade year, when she was 36––as a way to investigate the characters’ motivations and reads on each other. For as sprawling as the story could be, it exercises immense restraint, making a prosperous theme out of zooming in: the repetition of Christopher Blauvelt’s stunning extreme close-ups on the family’s burgeoning butterfly garden; Gracie’s horse-blinkered awareness of herself; the sudden, comedic zooms; the inquisitive nature of actor Elizabeth Berry’s (Portman) visit.
The film takes place in a short span of time during which the star stays with Gracie, Joe, and the kids in Savannah, Georgia to study Gracie for the movie in which she’ll be playing her. The family is calm, cute, and surprisingly comfortable with the whole thing, the fame of Elizabeth a fun treat to have around and the respect she offers in trying to understand them a notable change from the disgust they’re used to getting from people asking about it. From what we can tell, everyone’s come to terms with it, kids and Joe alike, and the outside doesn’t get to them like it used to.
As the relatively jobless Gracie––the same people routinely buy cakes from her, as they might tithe or give to the homeless––knows all too well, there aren’t many opportunities for registered offenders, and Elizabeth is stretching out her hand. Not to mention the movie is likely happening with or without her cooperation. But what she doesn’t see coming is Elizabeth’s sly approach, buried beneath her picture-perfect professionalism, which starts revealing that the elephant in the room lives under the rug, and maybe always has.
It would be very fair to expect a movie about a woman who raped a child and her future family’s reckoning with that to be dark, heavy, even overbearing. But May December is more funny than it is fervent, a bona fide spring suburban anthem, an American malady in chrysalis.
Christopher Blauvelt’s bright cinematography is beautiful, a grainy haze of light sizzling over the idyllic flowery frames. Wide shots drive slowly through willow-drenched streets. The tone is light, the pace breezy, the mood bucolic. Joe’s reckoning with the events are gentle, and they happen through more life-opening encounters than spiraling reflection, closer to awakening than reckoning.
Haynes makes a reality TV-esque bit out of their suburban life, Gracie always a paranoid wreck and Joe as cool as a cucumber. Funny moments play like Real Housewives one-liners. (“I don’t think we have enough hot dogs,” she says to the soapiest of pianos and an over-dramatic zoom.) It’s often as if Gracie is in a soap opera without anyone else.
Portman and Moore, in their first project together, have incredible synergy. There’s a catty frenemy dynamic between them as plastic as the suburbs. Just imagine: Portman and Moore squaring off in completely veiled conversations defined by passive-aggression. “It’s a very complex and human story,” Elizabeth says in a well-performed perfunctory manner to get out of answering what draws her to playing someone like Gracie. Elizabeth, of course, is no angel herself.
When she’s sent audition videos for the role of the kid she’ll play alongside in the film, she complains that they’re cute… but not sexy enough. When she gets Joe in a room, can she be trusted? Maybe her and Gracie have more in common after all, in a roundabout way. At the very least, they know how to shut out their haters and uphold a dangerous degree of existential tunnel vision.
Regardless, Burch uses Elizabeth’s vapid Hollywood outlook to muddy the moral high ground she assumes herself on, which comes out in faux-contemplative musings like, “Don’t you ever dwell on the past?” or “It’s the complexity of the moral gray areas that are most interesting to me.” It’s hard to tell if Gracie sees through it as easily as we do; then again it’s hard to tell what Gracie thinks about anything. She’s a closed trap, perhaps even to herself.
Haynes seems most interested, still, in the suburbs, the distinctly American areas where people like Gracie, or Safe’s Carol, or Far from Heaven’s Cathy exile themselves to collapse beneath a cautious, isolated existence surrounded by all their favorite things, recently dusted. He revels in the droll glamor and self-imposed histrionics of suburban culture through Gracie; he highlights the epistemic relativism inherent to the story through Elizabeth. It’s some of his finest work in capturing suburban life.
Instead of writing a totally original score, Haynes––in a brilliant artistic recycling on par with R.M.N.’s re-use of In the Mood for Love‘s theme at Cannes last year––asked composer Marcelo Zavros to adapt one of his favorite scores: Michel Legrand’s compositions for 1971’s The Go-Between.
Haynes doesn’t direct veiled indictments. He’s too self-aware, too open for that. If anything he directs scripts that make us think twice about what we probably came in thinking (but not necessarily the event itself in this case). Go in expecting the unexpected, and––last but not least––a terrific slate of characters that sit among the most mercurial in Haynes’ oeuvre.
May December premiered at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival.