In 2002, director Todd Haynes and actress Julianne Moore made a domestic drama called Far From Heaven that was done in the style of an old Douglas Sirk picture. Now they've reteamed for May December, a domestic drama done in the style of a soap opera. Dramatic music stings arrive at key moments, characters sometimes stare seriously at each other, and scenes often end with a line of heavy-handed dialogue. I can't imagine too many people enjoying this as a "regular" movie, but anybody looking for something off the beaten path - but not too off - will appreciate the underlying humor and cleverly stylized performances.
Moore plays Gracie Yoo, a former school teacher who started a romantic/sexual relationship with a 13-year-old student. She got pregnant and served jail time. Nevertheless, she and Joe (Charles Melton) remain together, having married and raised a family. Natalie Portman costars as Elizabeth, a famous actress who will be portraying Gracie in an upcoming independent film. Her research includes probing the couple about the scandal from their past. That opens up a can of worms that threatens to change the course of their lives.
Obviously, Gracie is inspired by Mary Kay Letourneau, the teacher who made headlines for identical reasons back in 1997. Although there is a darkly comedic element to May December, the movie is serious in its examination of the Gracie/Joe relationship. Subtle hints exist that their marriage is based on a desire to make what happened “okay.” If they’re married as adults, then her illegal actions are justified, right?
That’s a gripping dynamic, as is the fact that Elizabeth’s presence serves to point out that, no, it’s still not justified. The soap opera-ish flourishes, which are carried out with relative restraint, underline the idea that what happened to Gracie was viewed as a spectacle by the public, despite very serious repercussions for those involved. Haynes’ approach suits the material well, getting you to think about the difference between tabloid sensationalism and actual human experience.
All movies should have Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman in the cast. They’re outstanding as always. Moore effectively conveys the denial Gracie lives in and how Elizabeth’s arrival gradually chips away at it. The actress helps us understand that Gracie’s whole life is about convincing herself that what she did was acceptable. Watching her fall apart as reality sets in showcases Moore at her very best. Portman, meanwhile, pulls off an incredibly tricky task – she becomes Moore as the film progresses. Elizabeth is studying Gracie, so Portman has to adopt the mannerisms and speech cadence Moore brings to her character. The transformation is incredibly effective by the third act.
May December ends on a strange note. It’s understandable what the story is attempting to imply. A better way of getting it across might have been more provocative, though. Even with that weak wrap-up, the excellent work from Moore and Portman – as well as from Charles Melton – makes the picture a good use of time for admirers of great acting.
out of four
May December is rated R for some sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use, and language. The running time is 1 hour and 57 minutes.