May December works on the level of narrative metaphysicality that Todd Haynes has perched upon so proficiently over the years. Think of the weaving of fact and fiction from which the tapestry of his musical non-biopics Velvet Goldmine and I’m Not There take shape: these are films rooted in capturing the essence of a story, rather than its literal narrative lineage. May, December springs from the same subversive intent, only this time, Haynes looks to capture the nub of a delusional sexual predator rather than cultural icons.
The real-life case of Mary Kay Letourneau provides the historical source of Julianne Moore’s Gracie, an ex-teacher whose sexual affair and subsequent marriage to Joe Yoo, her seventh-grade student at the time, garnered national media attention. The rights to a Hollywood movie about the sordid case have been sold, and the movie’s production is imminent with Natalie Portman’s Elizabeth Berry set to star. In preparation for the role, Berry travels to the 60-year-old’s home where she lives with the now 36-year-old Joe (Charles Melton) and their three children. Berry’s observations of Gracie are meticulously comprehensive, absorbing every tic, every movement and every impediment of speech. Deeper than this, however, Berry wants to understand the inner workings of Gracie’s compartmentalisation of her actions; she genuinely believes that she has done nothing wrong, and was acting on the accidental, random impulse of love. It’s an aspect of her character that fascinates Berry – one she hopes to build on her performance.
Ironically, however, it’s an inner life that May December keeps at a cool arm’s length. Its sharp, jagged tone, whilst honing in on Hollywood’s propensity for lurid sensationalisation, is too impenetrable, thinning the impact of the Bergmann-esque, strange symbiosis at the centre of the admittedly tight screenplay, penned by Sammy Burch, which nevertheless arrives at fairly foreseeable conclusions; paedophilic teachers are insecure manipulators, while Hollywood is a predacious sphere of exploitation in the scoop of the century.
That being said, Haynes’s direction is as harmoniously paced as ever, and has a ball with the meta implications of the screenplay and the casting, while Moore and Portman in their first collaboration share a brooding synergy. The standout performance, however, is delivered by Melton, whose character sits in the middle of the psychodrama like a lost puppy. He expertly oscillates between a reassuring, aged figure of emotional strength to his wife, and one of infantile insecurity in the presence of Elizabeth.
May December has deceitful rumblings at every turn, the irony of Elizabeth’s quest for the “truth” of the story laid bare in a supple act of cinematic sleight of hand. It’s an enjoyably duplicitous tale, but perhaps not as startlingly revealing as it thinks it is.
May December does not have a UK release date yet.
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Watch a clip from May December here: