Though tabloid scandals can be fascinating, they also have the potential to be equally harrowing. Carol and Wonderstruck director Todd Haynes turns to a notorious tabloid romance in his latest feature May December. Screenwriters Samy Burch and Alex Mechanik loosely base their script on the real-life 1997 scandal of Mary Kay Letourneau, an elementary school teacher who was caught having a sexual relationship with one of her 12-year-old students. Ever since May December first premiered at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival, it has become increasingly apparent that the connotation behind the movie’s title is a mystery to many, despite its loose connection to the infamous scandal. A May-December romance is a metaphorical term that uses the cycle of seasons to insinuate an age gap within a relationship where one counterpart is in the spring of their life, while the other is in the winter.
When we first find them, Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore) and her significantly younger husband Joe (Charles Melton) are living what appears to be a cushy suburban life in Savannah, Georgia. With their eldest child already at college and their twins preparing to graduate high school, the couple brace for the impact of becoming empty nesters. Though hesitant at first, Gracie and Joe let Hollywood actress Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman) enter their lives so she can conduct research in preparation to play Gracie in an upcoming feature film about the controversial nature of their relationship – which shockingly gripped the nation twenty years ago in a public scandal.
Back in the ’90s, Gracie (aged 36) met Joe, who was fresh out of the seventh grade, at the pet shop he took up as a summer job. Their illegal and frankly predatory relationship ensued from there, unleashing chaos that consisted of arrests and divorce. As Elizbeth and the audience learn more about the origins of their relationship, the seemingly idyllic family dynamics that the Yoo couple presents to the world become increasingly fractured. It becomes evident that perhaps both Joe and Gracie are settling into an unhappy romance, making all the illegalities around their scandal seem like obstacles to overcome in order to achieve true love.
May December is a fascinating, multi-layered character study as the viewer is presented with both Gracie and Joe’s marital crisis and Elizabeth’s internal examination of it. To no surprise, Natalie Portman carries herself as a fictional movie star with ease. Portman learns to expertly imitate not her mere co-star Julianne Moore, but a character that Moore herself also disappears into. Moore is superb and often feels unrecognizable as the deluded housewife Gracie, a woman who makes it clear that she has no interest in dwelling on her grotesque past.
Downplaying her manipulative tactics, Gracie employs a slight lisp to evoke a childlike innocence at any minor inconvenience. It doesn’t take long until Elizabeth picks up on these subtleties, displaying her mimicking talent in a grand monologue wherein Natalie Portman nearly steals the entire show. The script gives both Julianne Moore and Portman a chance to flex their well-nourished acting muscles. With each of their shared interactions, the two women remind audiences why they remain some of the industry’s most admired talents.
As much as May December is about Gracie and Elizabeth’s conflict as a researcher and subject, it is equally about how Joe was taken advantage of by his own wife. This crucial piece of the narrative takes on a new level when Elizabeth’s acting methods cross the line. Subtle clues and hints elevate the harrowing revelation Joe faces when he realizes that his innocence and childhood were stripped away from him before he was capable of making decisions that even adults would struggle to grasp.
The film positions Joe’s harmless fascination with monarch butterflies as an allegory for how he craves metamorphosis as a child stuck in an adult’s body. Charles Melton of Riverdale and Poker Face fame impressively depicts the gut-wrenching duality of his character who has been living as a “mature man” for the better part of two decades. In reality, Joe is tragically a 36-year-old man whose kids are having to teach him the youthful rights of passages that he missed out on.
Director Todd Haynes and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt go all in with utilizing unconventional blocking and reflective visuals to maintain engagement at all times. While it is evident that Haynes’ intentions with the story are confident, he simultaneously does not feel the need to spoon-feed his audience. May December never explicitly suggests how to judge any of its characters or the situations they find themselves in, allowing enough room for spectators to unravel and take in this complex piece at their own pace.
May December isn’t afraid to employ melodrama on occasion either, disregarding a level of stoicism that could have accompanied the subject matter and would have the potential to stifle it. Filmmaker Todd Haynes balances a melodramatic tone that doesn’t always take itself too seriously but knows precisely when to reign it in for the more quiet, striking moments. To the viewer, May December presents broken characters riddled with variations of pain and guilt, leaving it up to those watching what forgiveness or acceptance they deserve.