Controversy permeates our news, social media, television, and film. These often-disturbing stories often fuel melodramatic and hackneyed retellings of them, with little regard for the actual people involved. May December takes a genuine, scandalous event and deconstructs the public reactions to them and how opportunistic people vampirically feed off these moments in human history.
Natalie Portman stars as Elizabeth Berry, an actor given the opportunity to portray a “real-life” woman and her story after her choices take the world by storm. A cinematic adaptation of Gracie Atherton-Yoo’s (Julianne Moore) relationship with an underage teen named Joe (Charles Melton) is in the works, and Elizabeth decides that she should spend some time with Gracie, Joe, and their family to get a better sense of their life and the events that led them to this moment in time.
When Joe was 13 years old, he and his adult friend Gracie began a tumultuous affair that eventually came to the attention of Gracie’s husband and the legal authorities. Gracie would eventually get convicted of sexual abuse of a minor but still managed to maintain a relationship with Joe and would, after serving her sentence, marry him and start a family. Elizabeth’s presence and meddling in their seemingly happy life prove problematic to the family, as her further involvement reveals deep wounds of this troublesome relationship.
Written by Samy Burch and Alex Mechanik, Todd Haynes’s May December takes a most unconventional approach to this disturbing and bizarre story. If the plot sounds strikingly familiar, the movie is loosely based on the true story of Mary Kay Letourneau and her relationship with her student, Vili Fualaau. Haynes and his writers have taken these events and how they have affected everyone involved, along with how film and television often latch on to make some money. What makes this movie more unconventional is that Haynes attempts to balance the harsh reality of this relationship with the sensational, tabloid-fueled response to the aftermath.
It is a tricky balance to maintain successfully, and the movie mostly succeeds. However, when the film delves into the more melodramatic and sensationalized portrayal of this story, the movie’s overall tone suffers a little. It has a jarring effect when it occasionally becomes a Lifetime movie full of corny and silly exaggeration.
Still, I understand what message Haynes and his collaborators are trying to convey. Cinema and television often try to capitalize on the pain and suffering endured during scandals and portray these real people as two-dimensional versions of themselves. Some films and Lifetime movies of the week usually only focus on the juicier details of these events without any delicacy or care for the pain endured.
This movie is a sharply biting satire that even points out that some actors have so little regard for the people they are portraying and the lengths they will go to recreate these stories. Such is the role of the character Elizabeth Berry, and actor Natalie Portman does an exceptional job of portraying a hungry and ambitious actor who honestly does not care how her portrayal of Gracie will impact the Yoo family. As always, Julianne Moore is incredible as the disturbed Gracie. The real standout, however, is Charles Melton, who portrays Joe Yoo. Joe is a victim of abuse and someone whose development as an adult has been stunted during the most crucial years of his life.
May December is a challenging watch. It is a very uncomfortable movie about a complicated subject. Nevertheless, I applaud the courage of Haynes, his writers, and actors for swinging for the fences with this troubling piece of cinema. May December has already been released in some theaters and is now available for streaming via Netflix. It is a movie I highly recommend, but it certainly needs a chaser with something much lighter and more entertaining afterward.