Over the course of his career, director Todd Haynes has justly earned a reputation for telling vivid, well-acted, absorbing stories about women, from Safe to Far From Heaven to Carol to Mildred Pierce. His streak continues with May December, which centers on memorable, intense performances by Natalie Portman and Haynes veteran Julianne Moore. Deftly mixing melodrama with camp, Haynes — working from an impressive first feature script by Samy Burch — empowers his two talented stars to dig into May December‘s complex relationships and situations.
Burch’s script for May December, inspired by headline-grabbing true stories like that of Mary Kay Letourneau, introduces us to Gracie (Moore), a one-time teacher who’s been married for 20 years to Joe (Charles Melton), the former student she first slept with when he was 13. They’re living an uneasy but largely happy life in Georgia when well-known Hollywood actress Elizbaeth (Natalie Portman) arrives to do some background research for the movie in which she’s been cast to play Gracie. By turns star struck and suspicious, Gracie, Joe, and the rest of their family members take Elizabeth into their lives.
The result of that choice is the destabilization of Gracie and Joe’s very carefully maintained equilibrium — which already was at least partly a facade. And for her part, Elizabeth starts to lose herself in Gracie’s history, choices, and personality quirks. Portman does an excellent job of showing Elizabeth’s slide into more or less becoming Gracie — both demonstrating and mocking the Method-acting approach, with its all-in commitment to a character. And Moore seems both protective of Gracie and in on the joke about her willful self delusion.
Haynes uses May December‘s evocative, purposely heavy-handed score to play up some of its campier moments — for instance, early in the film when Gracie realizes they might need more hot dogs for a barbecue. Between his direction, Burch’s memorable script, and Moore’s expert handling of Gracie’s complexities (as well as Portman’s clear enjoyment of being part of the proceedings), May December feels like a plussed-up take on a Lifetime drama — and that makes it both fun and thought-provoking. — Betsy Bozdech
Team #MOTW’s comments:
Sherin Nicole May December is a duel between two women with unclear motives and serious pathologies. Elizabeth is ravenous in her need for adoration, while Gracie is practiced at verbal programming. The level of manipulation is stunning and Samy Burch’s screenplay so well written you’re not sure if it’s there at all—a prime marker of the abuse infusing the story. May December could easily be classified as horror. I was horrified, you likely will be too. The title of the film is a play on words, referencing the colloquialism “May-December romance.” The word romance is missing because it doesn’t exist here. What we walk away with is the understanding that past wrongs can be inherited as seamlessly as hereditary diseases. And sometimes “the truth” isn’t the medicine we hope for. Read full review
Leslie Combemale Todd Haynes takes on a 1996 tabloid story that rocked the US, that of teacher Mary Kay Letourneau’s controversial relationship with one of her sixth grade students. The narrative in May December, which expands on the real tale, benefits from performances by Julianne Moore as Gracie, Charles Melton as her much younger husband, and Natalie Portman as the actress cast to play Gracie in an upcoming movie. By its nature it feels very meta, but it also offers a spectacular vehicle for Portman and Moore, both alone and together. Pay particular attention to their speech and the way they use their mouths. Portman’s aping of Moore’s cadence and vocal intonation are, alone, worth the price of admission. Screenwriter Samy Burch does a great job of making the film both funny and cringe-inducing, and she’d better get lots of writing gigs from this, especially since one of her other credits, the animated hybrid Coyote vs. Acme, won’t see the light of day due to management changes at Warner Bros.
Nell Minow: Portman and Moore give sensitive, thoughtful performances in a Persona-like meditation on identity, agency, trauma, boundaries, and the gulf between the way we want to be seen and the need to be known for who we are.
Jennifer Merin May December is a gripping very femme-centric drama scripted by Samy Burch, directed by Todd Haynes and starring Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore as utterly fascinating women, revealing in turn their sparring personalities and counterpoint objectives. The plot is loosely based on various news stories that report trysts between older women and underage boys. Julianne Moore plays a former teacher who was imprisoned for bedding a 13 year old student, who then became her husband when he became of age and she was released from jail. The film finds the couple 20 years into their marriage, at a moment when their story is to be turned into a feature film. Natalie Portman, cast as the actress who will portray Julianne Moore’s character in the film within a film, arrives to research her role. MAY DECEMBER is the drama surrounding the encounter between the two beautifully developed female leads. The script is Samy Burch’s first feature and it is a gem. FYI, AWFJ features Samy Burch in the November SPOTLIGHT.
Loren King With shades of Hitchcock and Bergman’s Persona, May December keeps viewers guessing and off kilter, in a good way. Subtle, strange and riveting, Todd Haynes and his two compelling leads present a stylish mix of tabloid sensation and a psychological portrait; it’s a heady mix of irresistible but uneasy entertainment. Read full review.
Sandie Angulo Chen: May December is a movie you can appreciate for its phenomenal performances (Julianne Moore, Natalie Portman, Charles Melton) and Todd Haynes’ commitment to melodrama and forbidden love. Obviously based on the infamously lurid story of 34-year-old Mary Kay Letourneau and her 12-year-old “love” Vili Fualaau, the movie forces moviegoers to sit in the discomfort of sexual trauma and child abuse. It’s also full of dark humor and biting commentary on Hollywood’s role in sensationalizing and exploiting ripped-from-the-headlines stories.
Nikki Fowler: Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore give incredible performances in Todd Haynes’s May December, loosely based on the real life story of Mary Kay Letourneau. Starring Moore as Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Moore) and the amazing Charles Melton as her husband Joe Yoo, the film tells the story of the 1990s scandalous relationship between Gracie as a 36-year-old mother of two and Joe who had just finished seventh grade when Gracie committed the crime of being intimate with a minor, going to jail while pregnant with his child and then leaving prison to go on to marry Joe and have his children. May December has Portman playing Elizabeth, an actress who visits Gracie to study her for an upcoming role but engages in inappropriate behavior herself. While the film plays to the culture of sensationalism and scandal, it’s a story that may make many feel uncomfortable as they indulge in learning the intricacies of a child predator and her relationship with her community, the tabloid media and the child who’s life she stole and consumed. Portman and Moore’s performances are outstanding but the film may leave you deeply disturbed at this microscopic view of a woman’s life after committing a crime against a child.
Liz Whittemore Loosely inspired by the Mary Kay Letourneau scandal in the 90s, Todd Haynes helms May December, yet another profoundly nuanced film about women. It is an emotional freight train of a story. Charles Melton, as Joe, possesses a gentleness. He creates a man frozen in time with a childlike innocence. He steals each scene he’s in. It’s an award-worthy turn. Natalie Portman plays Elizabeth Berry with a narcissism that catches you off guard. There is almost a Single White Female aspect to her immersive performance. It’s a character study on steroids.
Julianne Moore is Gracie. She is passive-aggressively commanding. It’s a fascinating unraveling of a complex and wounded woman yearning for deep love. The score has an intentionally dated, intrusive, and sinister tone. The visual metaphor of Joe’s monarch hatching is unmistakable. It is inventive and clever. May December is a heavyweight fight between two fearless women. A master class in performance, it’s a story of manipulation, trauma, and control. Moore’s final line sums it up perfectly. “Insecure people are very dangerous, aren’t they?”
Cate Marquis Todd Haynes’ love of director Douglas Sirk was on full display when he recreated Sirk’s 1950s overwrought melodrama style in Far From Heaven but while Haynes’ latest doesn’t go that far, there is plenty of Sirk’s emotional melodrama (and an over-the-top score) in Haynes’ soapy May December. May December is a drama partly inspired by the shocking 1990s Mary Kay Letourneau scandal, involving a 13-year-old boy she got pregnant by and later married, and other reports of sex scandals involving an older woman and an under-age boy. However, this story takes place twenty years after the infamous events, with the still-married couple living a comfortable, small-town life with their with twin children on the verge of graduating high school. A famous actress (Natalie Portman) arrives to research the woman (Julianne Moore) kn preparation for playing her in an upcoming movie about the infamous story. Despite the actress’ reassurances, Julianne Moore’s character is wary, trying to show herself and her family life in the best possible light, while Portman’s actress tries to dig beneath the surface of the mystery of the woman and her relationship with the boy she later married and with whom she had three children. May December sets up a tense pas-de-deux duel between these dual female leads, played brilliantly by Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore, in this femme-centric story.
Title: May December
Director: Todd Haynes
Release Date: November 17, 2023 (limited)
Running Time: 87 minutes
Screenwriters: Samy Burch, story by Samy Burch and Joe Mechanik
Distribution Company: Netflix
AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Betsy Bozdech, Jamie Broadnax, Leslie Combemale, Nikki Fowler, Pam Grady, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Sherin Nicole, Liz Whittemore
Edited by Jennifer Merin