Review | May December | 2023

Natalie Portman as Elizabeth Berry and Julianne Moore as Gracie Atherton-Yoo in May December. Cr. Francois Duhamel / courtesy of Netflix

In the 1990s, the Mary Kay Letourneau case was something of a tabloid obsession. Letourneau, a 36 year old teacher, was jailed for sexually abusing one of her 12 year old students. She became pregnant with his baby, and the two were married upon her release. It was a scandal that was the stuff of fascination for supermarket rags and credulous television interviews that seemingly couldn't get enough of Letourneau's sordid tale - how could a grown woman fall in love with a 12-year-old boy?

The "how" and "why" seem painfully irrelevant now. It was a shockingly clear cut case of grooming and sexual abuse then and remains so now, but Letourneau became a minor celebrity because of it - and her determination to turn her tale into a love story was a train wreck from which the world couldn't look away. That is the phenomenon upon which director Todd Haynes turns his gaze in his latest film, May December, a fictional tale inspired by the Letourneau case that explores the tabloid frenzy surrounding the case and how it continued to victimize the young man at its center.

Natalie Portman stars as Elizabeth Berry, an actress preparing to play the  Letourneau-esque Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore), in a movie about how she met and was impregnated by her now-husband Joe (Charles Melton) when he was in 7th grade. As Elizabeth gets to know Gracie and observes her daily life, the level of abuse and manipulation she still exercises over Joe becomes increasingly clear, even as he prepares to send his own children off to college who are not that much younger than him. 

Haynes directs the film like a Lifetime original movie by way of Pedro Almodóvar, a purposefully overwrought melodrama that about how stories of abuse and victimhood become fodder for tabloid sleaze at the expense of the real people who lived them. Portman and Moore are excellent, and Portman's transformation into Moore is both transfixing and disturbing. But it's Melton who really steals the show as a man stuck in perpetual boyhood, a father of college-aged children who is barely an adult himself, struggling to cope with the loss of a life that has been stolen from him.

The subtle ways in which Gracie wields her power are some of the most potent depictions of abuse I've ever seen on screen (a cutting remark disguised as a compliment to her teenage daughter while trying on graduation dresses hits especially hard). Gracie not only sexually abused a child, but her narcissism fuels continued emotional manipulation. Throw in a B-list actress researching a role in a trashy TV movie, and you have a veritable witch's brew of pulpy melodrama through which Haynes explores America's fascination with the tawdry, no matter how many lives are destroyed in the process. It's a thorny, unsettling piece of work, beautiful to look at but just as uncomfortable to contemplate. Haynes confronts the audience with its own complicity in sensationalizing the pain of real human victims, challenging a society whose fascination with tabloid excesses only continues the cycles of abuse.  

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

MAY DECEMBER | Directed by Todd Haynes | Stars Natalie Portman, Julianne Moore, Charles Melton, Andrea Frankle, Gabriel Chung, Mikenzie Taylor, Elizabeth Yu | Rated R for some sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and language | Now streaming exclusively on Netflix.


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