The 1996 sex abuse scandal surrounding Mary Kay Letourneau and her then 13-year-old student inspired no shortage of screen content: from classic “ripped from the headlines” television movies and Law and Order: Special Victims Unit episodes, to Oscar-nominated dramas such as Notes on a Scandal and even a raunchy Adam Sandler comedy (That’s My Boy).
Instead of merely joining the ranks, Todd Haynes’s latest masterpiece actively concerns itself with the former. Just like Penelope Ann Miller sought correspondence with an imprisoned Letourneau in order to portray her in All-American Girl, May December opens with actress Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman) seeking contact with the woman she is about to play. 23 years after her statutory rape conviction, Gracie (Julianne Moore) and Joe Yoo’s (Charles Melton) youngest children are about to graduate from high school, and no longer impaired by restraining orders, it looks as though the controversial couple are living their happily ever after.
“They’re sweet, aren’t they?,” is the first comment Elizabeth – and the viewer – hears about the Yoos at their picture-perfect New England dinner party. And perhaps we would have allowed ourselves to be persuaded to see it as the boundless love story both parties claim it is, if it weren’t for the haunting music, admonishing and alerting us to look closer. The score is a powerhouse adaptation of Michel Legrand’s piano themes for The Go-Between, and each time the instrument’s hammers hit the strings, it delivers another gut punch to the audience.
Samy Burch and Alex Mechanic’s sublime script pokes into every corner of this intricate case: the previous marriage destroyed by this illicit affair (Gracie’s grandchild is the same age as her twins), the power imbalance that transcends age (Charles’ family being the only Koreans in the neighbourhood), and the way femininity can be used as a weapon. Rarely has a film been so judicious in its examination of the effects of sexual assault. At the same time, the feature points the finger at itself and criticises the morbid sensationalism and hubris of media claiming to seek and portray the truth. The grotesque situation allows for humour to unfold, for instance when Berry asks her director to find “sexier children” for their film.
Previous critics have referred to a “campiness” or “melodrama” in Haynes’s direction as performance is the core motif: Berry assuming Gracie’s mannerisms for the film, Gracie playing into an idea of a vulnerable and insecure female in need of protection. Immediately propelled into the role of head of a family, Joe never even had time to truly reflect upon their relationship, because he had to perform as a father. A variation of the old joke about the man, who keeps banging his head against a brick wall, has him reason that “it only hurts when I stop”. The audience becomes witness to the exact moment Joe’s pain finally sets in, as Elizabeth Berry’s “Method Acting” tears open his wounds.
Naturally, upon seeing Portman and Moore’s names on the poster, the audience knows they are in for the cream of the crop in terms of acting, but the real star of the piece is Charles Melton. Effortlessly keeping up with his Academy Award-winning co-stars, the Riverdale alum not only hits every required note but single-handedly provides the overall reserved piece’s emotional component: the tragic comedy of smoking his first joint with his teenage son pierces the audience’s heart through their laughter when he asks, “I don’t know if we’re connecting or if I’m creating a bad memory for you.” 23 years down the road, the audience can tell the dynamics of how their relationship originated in Joe’s eagerness to please Gracie.
There is not one frame in May December that feels superfluous. Each shot adds a new layer to the rich buffet of food for thought, perhaps best contained in the Monarch butterflies Joe helps weather through their cocoon stage: beautiful creatures to look at, their existence not only establishes several sides to Joe’s character (lonely, “nerdy”, but caring for them is the only time he doesn’t have to fulfil anybody’s expectations of him), in the end, they are symbolic for his own stunted development and not being able to grow wings and flourish.
May December is not only one of the best films of the year but among the most important films tackling the long-term havoc that child abuse wreaks.
May December is released nationwide on 17th November and on Sky Cinema on 8th December 2023.
Read more reviews and interviews from our London Film Festival 2023 coverage here.
For further information about the festival visit the official BFI website here.
Watch the trailer for May December here: