Film Review: “May December” — Tabloid Romance
By Peg Aloi
The scenario may seem a bit too meta, but in director Todd Haynes’s deft hands, the tonal complexities of May December are quite dizzying to behold.
May December, directed by Todd Haynes. Screening at Kendall Square Cinema and Alamo Drafthouse Cinema Boston.
Todd Haynes’s hotly anticipated new film is unlike anything he’s done before, but the effort is clearly informed by his trademark style and seemingly effortless ability to conjure intense, emotional, beautifully rendered cinematic experiences from a wide range of inspirations. May December is both a narrative departure and a triumphant return to form for Haynes, who branched out from his opulent, melodramatic oeuvre with Dark Waters (based on a true story of a lawyer fighting a corporation over charges of environmental pollution). The director once again delves into “true story” territory with this film, with a screenplay by Samy Burch based on a controversial relationship that dominated US tabloids for months.
The film revolves around the story of Seattle school teacher Mary Kay Letourneau, who had a sexual relationship with Vili Fualaau, a 13-year-old student, and bore twins fathered by him in prison after she was convicted in 1997 of second-degree child rape. After her release from prison, the two later married and had another child. Letourneau died in 2020 at the age of 58. May December is set in the present and changes some of the original story’s details. Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore, previously directed by Haynes in Safe and Far from Heaven) has been married for more than 20 years to Joe Yoo (Riverdale’s Charles Melton). They live a seemingly quiet life in a lovely waterfront home in Savannah, Georgia, where Joe works as a landscape designer and Gracie has a home baking business.
The film opens with Joe indoors, lovingly tending some Monarch butterfly cocoons. He seems to be a quiet man, gentle and kind with a ready sense of humor. Gracie is a bit stressed; she is preparing a family barbecue and awaiting the arrival of Hollywood actress Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman). Elizabeth has been cast as Gracie in a forthcoming movie; because the screenplay will deal with the beginning of her relationship with Joe, Gracie is understandably on her guard. But she has agreed to give Elizabeth access to her life, to visit their home, and spend time with the family. This may be a career-defining opportunity for Elizabeth; it may also potentially be a way to publicly reframe Gracie and Joe’s story. If the scenario seems a bit too meta, that’s a fair criticism, but in Haynes’s deft hands, the tonal complexities of this film are quite dizzying to behold.
At first glance, May December may be a straightforward drama, though the musical score (by Marcelo Zarvos, who also scored this year’s Cassandro) during the opening scene feels overtly and strikingly melodramatic. Perhaps the idea is to prepare viewers for the subtle but wild ride to come. Things are in transition in the household: one kid is already at college and the other soon to depart. The prospect of an empty nest has Gracie feeling unmoored, and Joe shows signs of being restless. Elizabeth’s arrival coincides with a mildly embarrassing situation that reveals the public animosity toward the couple even after all these years. Gracie seems to be in fight or flight mode, trying to hold it together for her family and herself. Elizabeth feels her way into the domestic arrangement, reluctant to delve too deeply or to ask disturbing questions. Still, her very presence causes upheaval. Knowing the high profile history of the film’s story, the actress’s polite scrutiny suggests a pointedly Method (or perhaps Machiavellian) approach. She will seemingly stop at nothing to achieve the authenticity that will render her performance as memorable as this couple’s tabloid scandal.
Ordinarily, a film like this, with a perfect antihero at its center (Gracie is both a monster and a victim, it could be said), might lead viewers to be flexible about where they place their sympathies. Elizabeth’s ruthlessness is often impressive but perhaps not admirable. Joe is likable, but his guileless manner and vulnerability to manipulation come off as rather sad. Haynes’s direction nimbly shifts among genres: sometimes it feels like we are watching a soap opera or telenovela, sometimes a cringe-inducing black comedy. On occasion, May December moves into psychological thriller territory.
The reasonable expectation is that the film will rip open the couple’s partly healed wounds, that it will dredge up assorted sordid details of a sensational story that dominated headlines and spawned more than one movie adaptation. By setting Gracie and Joe’s original meeting place in a pet store where they both worked — and not in the school where Mary Kay taught — that supposition is not met. The attempt to level the playing field feels rather contrived. Still, how else to tell this story without exploitation, but to contrive a distanced situation where the relationship is steeped in self-conscious drama? Moore and Portman’s performances are stunning, full of tension, nuanced observation, and tightly managed behaviors. Charles Melton’s Joe supplies a less flamboyant presence, but his grounded, measured gestures suggest an otherworldly, gentle beast who doesn’t quite belong among these soulless humans. His flesh and blood authenticity stands in stark, revelatory contrast to Gracie and Elizabeth’s heightened artificiality. Hollywood, it seems, is always and ever trying to portray life as it really is, and Haynes, an artist whose majestic fictions explode with intimacy and intricacy, shows us, again and again, what folly it is to think that cinema can ever be synonymous with truth.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for the Boston Phoenix and member of the Boston Society of Film Critics, the Critics Choice Awards, and the Alliance for Women Film Journalists. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes on film, TV, and culture for web publications like Time, Vice, Polygon, Bustle, Mic, Orlando Weekly, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found on substack.