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May December

Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman are phenomenal in this complicated based-on-a-true-tale drama, while 'Riverdale' star Charles Melton turns in his best performance yet.
By Sarah Ward
February 01, 2024
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By Sarah Ward
February 01, 2024
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A line about not having enough hot dogs might be one of its first, but May December is a movie of mirrors and butterflies. In the literal sense, director Todd Haynes wastes few chances to put either in his frames. The Velvet Goldmine, Carol and Dark Waters filmmaker doesn't shy away from symbolism, knowing two truths that stare back at his audience from his latest masterpiece: that what we see when we peer at ourselves in a looking glass isn't what the rest of the world observes, and that life's journey is always one of transformation. Inspired by the real-life Mary Kay Letourneau scandal, May December probes both of these facts as intently as anyone scrutinising their own reflection. Haynes asks viewers to do the same. Unpacking appearance and perception, and also their construction and performance, gazes from this potently thorny — and downright potent — film. That not all metamorphoses end with a beautiful flutter flickers through just as strongly. 

May December's basis springs from events that received ample press attention in the 90s: schoolteacher Letourneau's sexual relationship with her sixth-grade student Vili Fualaau. She was 34, he was 12. First-time screenwriter Samy Burch changes names and details in her Oscar-nominated script — for Best Original Screenplay, which is somehow the film's only nod by the Academy — but there's no doubting that it takes its cues from this case of grooming, which saw Letourneau arrested, give birth to the couple's two daughters in prison, then the pair eventually marry. 2000 TV movie All-American Girl: The Mary Kay Letourneau Story used the recreation route; however, that was never going to be a Haynes-helmed feature's approach. The comic mention of hot dogs isn't indicative of May December's overall vibe, either: this a savvily piercing film that sees the agonising impact upon the situation's victim, the story its perpetrator has spun around herself, and the relentless, ravenous way that people's lives and tragedies are consumed by the media and public. 

While Oscar nods mightn't have come of it, May December is also an acting masterclass by two thespians who already have one such shiny trophy on their mantles each, plus a performer who turns in a stunner of a portrayal that's his best yet. With Haynes behind the camera, this is no surprise: watching the talent before his lens, even when they're Barbie dolls in Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (the genuinely plastic rather than Margot Robbie kind), means bathing in pure emotion. In her fifth film for the director after Safe, Far From Heaven, I'm Not There and Wonderstruck, Julianne Moore (Sharper) perfects the clash of control and insecurity within Gracie Atherton-Yoo, the movie's Letourneau substitute. It's a magnificent effort from someone who is never anything less than that — and Natalie Portman (Thor: Love and Thunder), who plays a part so sharp that it cuts as Elizabeth Berry, an actor preparing to play Gracie in a new picture, is every bit her equal. With Charles Melton (Riverdale) as Gracie's husband Joe Yoo, there's a case of art imitating life, in a way. His character spends Elizabeth's visit and his entire time with Gracie coming second, and he's behind his co-stars in terms of fame, but it's Joe's plight that's the core of May December and also Melton's performance that hauntingly lingers. 

This film begins with faeces as well, which isn't emblematic of what's to come, either, but still an important inclusion. A package of it sits on the Yoo family's doorstep when Elizabeth arrives to meet them for the first time — and Gracie makes it clear that this has happened before. May December sets its narrative 23 years after Gracie and Joe were initially caught together. They were colleagues at a pet store aged 36 and 13, respectively. They now have three kids, one (Piper Curda, The Flash) at college and twins (debutant Gabriel Chung and Somewhere in Queens' Elizabeth Yu) graduating high school, and have built a life after Gracie's prison sentence. Still residing in Savannah, Georgia, as they always have, she baked cakes and he's most passionate about raising monarch butterflies. There's a wariness over Elizabeth's project among the Yoos, but reassurance that this will be a sensitive take is also part of her time with her latest subject and her spouse. 

Make no mistake, because Haynes and Burch don't: for the role that she's hoping will elevate her beyond the TV series that she's best-known for, Elizabeth sees Gracie and Joe as mere source material. She interviews others, such as Gracie's first husband (DW Moffett, Monarch) and her eldest son from that marriage (Cory Michael Smith, Incomplete), each conversation saying as much about the actor as the woman she's set to bring to the screen. As rigorously rendered by Portman, she also becomes enamoured with the scenario that she's unfurling. A moment where Elizabeth loses herself explaining sex scenes to school kids — and the conflict between portraying pleasure and pretending not to actually feel pleasure — is savagely revealing. As Killers of the Flower Moon also does, this deeply astute movie has much to say about how circumstances like Joe's become sensationalised news and entertainment fodder, what that betrays about society and why people lap it up; add reflecting on its own existence and purpose to May December's many profoundly intelligent layers. 

When mirrors appear, they're frequently used around Gracie and Elizabeth. Of course, the latter is being a mirror herself. Cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt — Kelly Reichardt's regular collaborator; see: Showing Up, First Cow, Certain Women, Night Moves and Meek's Cutoff — visually recalls Ingmar Bergman's 1966 psychological drama Persona, as the movie in general does, as the lines between its two women start to blur. May December is partly a movie about what Gracie and Elizabeth spy when they're studying what's in front of them, and how divorced from reality both are. Gracie embraces a carefully erected fantasy where there's nothing more than love to her relationship with Joe, regardless of her domination over their household and repeated dissolving into tears in their bedroom. Elizabeth only takes in how she can become Gracie to her own advantage. Although Haynes and Blauvelt ensure that Moore and Portman are everywhere, neither of their characters will or can confront themselves or their manipulations.

Finally challenging everything that's been his daily existence since he was a child, and the role that he's been inhabiting whether he truly wanted to or not — or was capable of making that decision at such a young age — is the shy Joe. The only word that fits: devastation. May December knows this before Joe accepts it, which campy lines about frankfurters on bread accompanied by dramatic music — the film adapts and reorchestrates the score from 1971 Palme d'Or-winner The Go-Between, in fact — oh-so-cannily play into. With its rich and meticulous visuals, tonal seesawing that can court laughs and welcome melodrama, and evocatively grand music, Haynes' feature isn't being erratic. It's crafted with shrewd understanding that discomfort is the only way to respond to what it's depicting, and that there's no one mood that suits. So, Haynes plunges May December and its audience into the full emotional spectrum. Consider the film a cocoon where transformation takes place, to soaring results.

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