May December represents the execution of a familiar formula: Take an intriguing premise, and have great actors sell it. Directed by Todd Haynes, who’s continuing a career roll that includes Carol, Wonderstruck, Dark Waters, and his The Velvet Underground documentary, it’s a film that draws great drama from a tabloid-inspired premise.
The film, from a script by Samy Burch, draws inspiration from the story of Mary Kay Letourneau and Vili Fualaau, with Julianne Moore and Charles Melton playing the roles of Gracie and Joe. When she was in her 30s and he was 12, she was caught having sex with him, leading to a pregnancy, and a scandal that drew nationwide attention and led to her imprisonment.
After she got out, they were married and had two more children, and remain married to this day, about 20 years after their original meeting. This comes at the cost of continuing whispers and judgment, awkward estrangement from their previous family units, and the occasional package of feces in the mail.
In the present day, the couple is visited by a famous actress named Elizabeth (Natalie Portman) who’s set to play Gracie in a movie. The story, in this telling, had already been adapted years earlier into a trashy TV movie, although Portman’s version is aiming a bit higher. May December lands in theaters this week before heading to Netflix on December 1.
The set-up is great, and we’re supposed to ask a few questions: Should we see Gracie as an unredeemable child molester, even as she remains married to her now-adult victim and has college-aged children? How damaged is Joe by what happened to him decades earlier? And is Elizabeth a merely particularly intense Method actor, or a psychopath?
It’s uncomfortable, yet very good. And that’s even before Moore’s character does certain things, like fat-shaming her daughters and being rude to people poorer than her, that in today’s movies are short-hand for a character being an unambiguously bad person.
This is explored successfully with some fascinating acting from all three leads. Moore, as seen in Safe, Far From Heaven, and Wonderstruck, has done some of her best work for Haynes, and she nails this tricky role. Melton, best known for Riverdale, has a breakthrough turn here as a very conflicted man. But it’s Portman who walks away with the movie, in a wonderfully creepy performance that has a darkness not seen from the actress since her Oscar-winning turn in Black Swan more than a decade ago.
One complaint: the film doesn’t do enough with the couple’s three children, and the question of what it was like for them to grow up in the shadow of their parents’ scandalous backstory. We’re given hints of the wreckage left behind, including Gracie’s ex-husband (D.B. Sweeney) and her grown son (Cory Michael Smith).
Haynes, as usual, paints a beautiful picture, making a lived-in set out of the couple’s home, while using locations in Savannah well. He gets the tone exactly right, which isn’t easy, especially in a story like this.