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Inspired by a 1990s tabloid story, 'May December' fictionalizes a real tragedy

Natalie Portman (left) and Julianne Moore star in <em>May December,</em> Todd Haynes' film inspired by a real-life story of a schoolteacher who was convicted of raping her sixth-grade student.
Francois Duhamel
Natalie Portman (left) and Julianne Moore star in May December, Todd Haynes' film inspired by a real-life story of a schoolteacher who was convicted of raping her sixth-grade student.

If you were in reach of a TV or a tabloid in the '90s, you probably remember the case of Mary Kay Letourneau, the Washington state schoolteacher who was convicted of raping her sixth-grade student Vili Fualaau.

Fualaau was 12 when Letourneau, 34, first had sex with him. They had two children, one of whom was born while Letourneau was in prison. After her release in 2004, she and the now-adult Fualauu wed and were married for 14 years until their separation. Letourneau died of cancer in 2020.

The dark and sometimes disturbingly funny new movie May December was inspired by the Letourneau-Fualaau story, though it never mentions them by name. Julianne Moore plays Gracie Atherton-Yoo, who's in her late 50s, and Charles Melton plays her husband, Joe Yoo, who's in his 30s. They have three college-age children and a beautiful home in Savannah, Ga., where their close-knit community has long accepted them despite the scandal that broke out when their relationship came to light two decades earlier.

The director Todd Haynes, working from a smart, layered script by Samy Burch, comes at this material from a fascinating angle. A famous TV actor named Elizabeth Berry, played by the famous movie actor Natalie Portman, is set to play Gracie in an independent film. Elizabeth has come to Savannah to do some research by spending time with the couple, who are hoping they'll be depicted sympathetically. In one scene, Elizabeth attends a barbeque at Gracie and Joe's house and strikes up a conversation about them with one of their friends, who says what she most loves about Gracie is that she's an "unapologetic" woman who "always knows what she wants."

Moore, who gave two of her greatest performances in Haynes' earlier dramas Safe and Far From Heaven, plays Gracie with an edge of steel and a childlike lisp inspired by Letourneau herself. Although Gracie gives Elizabeth a friendly welcome, over the next few days she turns brittle and a little testy as the actor asks about her and Joe's relationship. There's an acid humor to Gracie's defiance as she refuses to wring her hands over her past misdeeds. In her mind, she and Joe and their kids are a happy and pretty normal family.

But Gracie is clearly deluding herself, and it doesn't take long for Elizabeth's presence to drive a wedge between the couple as old, unresolved issues rise to the surface. Melton, best known for the series Riverdale, is quietly revelatory as Joe, a man stuck in a kind of suspended adolescence. We can't help but notice how closely Joe resembles his teenage kids, not just in appearance but in age. Or how Gracie seems to treat him the way a needy mother might treat her son.

But as messed up as Gracie and Joe are, May December seems to respect them more than it does Elizabeth, who's clearly working this situation from every possible angle. Portman, doing her best and subtlest work in some time, brilliantly reveals the calculation behind Elizabeth's polite smiles and gently probing questions. Haynes clearly loves actors, but he isn't afraid to show how callous and even monstrous some of them can be in pursuit of their art. He's also critiquing the endless appetite for sensationalized, ripped-from-the-headlines stories and the industry's willingness to feed it.

All this would be rich dramatic fodder even if it were played perfectly straight. But Haynes, one of the most inventive stylists working in American movies, is incapable of being completely straightforward, and here he walks a tricky tonal line between melodrama, realism and camp.

At times he accents key moments with a deliberately overwrought burst of music, as if to give us a glimpse of the soap opera that Elizabeth's indie film project might well become. Elsewhere his references skew higher-brow: When he positions Moore and Portman side-by-side in closeup, he evokes the dreamy surrealism of Ingmar Bergman's Persona and David Lynch's Mulholland Drive, as if to suggest that Gracie's and Elizabeth's identities are blurring together.

In shifting among these different modes, Haynes reminds us that we're watching a movie, and that most movies can only give us a partial understanding of the truth. Still, for all its surface artifice and self-aware humor, what's striking about May December is how piercingly sad it becomes as it invites us to feel the full weight of Gracie and Joe's loneliness and desperation. These characters may be fictionalized constructs, but their tragedy is all too real.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.