Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman are brilliantly cast in Todd Haynes' acid-tongued take on the real life Mary Kay Letourneau
May December is the film Todd Haynes fans were probably disappointed not to get when the director last premiered at Cannes in 2021 with his documentary The Velvet Underground. The film was a critical hit, but for fans of Haynes’ brand of barbed, affecting and singular character dramas, it wasn’t quite what they were after. Have no fear – May December delivers a thrilling complexity we haven’t seen the likes of since 1995’s Safe.
It's loosely based on the highly publicised case of Mary Kay Letourneau, who was convicted in 1997 of statutory rape after she began a relationship with her then-12 year old student. Here, screenwriters Samy Burch and Alex Mechanik have applied to fictionalised characters a story about fiction; a semi-famous actress Elizabeth (Natalie Portman) is visiting Gracie (Julianne Moore) and Joe (Charles Melton) as she prepares to play a version of Gracie in an independent film.
The couple’s modest family life in Savannah, Georgia is overshadowed by the circumstances of their romance, and Haynes perfectly observes the ways pleasant, heteronormative suburbia naturally suppresses uncomfortable thoughts and feelings. When alarm does break out, as it does with zoom lenses and screeching score, it’s over the smallest blips – like Gracie realising their barbecue is short on hot dogs.
Elizabeth is like an unwanted scalpel, prodding and poking at the buried trauma of Gracie and Joe’s family – provoking the ire of both parents and children, including twins about to graduate high school, an experience Joe never got to experience. There’s nothing sensitive about Elizabeth’s approach, Haynes and Portman mine Burch and Mechanik’s screenplay for all the nasty, selfish playfulness Elizabeth feels at unsettling a family she’s loaded with judgements about. She knows full well she gets to withdraw whenever she wants – she’s not an investigator, but someone who wants to access emotional truth only so she can be lauded for a better performance. Acting is, after all, an inherently parasitic craft.
As exciting as the cattiness of Moore and Portman is to watch (Elizabeth keeps dropping in babyish affectations whenever she feels overly confronted), the MVP of May December’s ensemble (aside from the stellar bit-players who fill out Gracie’s broader, estranged family) is Charles Melton. Any Riverdale main cast member must be champing at the bit to play complex characters for prestigious directors, and Melton meets the challenge with a performance assured and affecting enough to challenge the Oscar-winning actresses he shares scenes with.
His emotional journey, where the normalcy of his family life crumbles at the sheer, horrific realisation of his childhood abuse, is pulled off with tar-black humour and, eventually, tragedy – the look on his face as he watches his children graduate will burrow deep down into your heart and refuse to leave. The rest of May December, with its acid-tongued resistance to back away from the most depraved expressions of human devotion, is likely to have the same effect.
May December was screened as part of the Cannes Film Festival 2023. A UK release date is yet to be announced.Where to watch