Todd Haynes is no stranger to defying expectations. His debut feature Poison (1991) was an entry to the then-burgeoning New Queer Cinema movement and an entrée to critically acclaimed attention. More recently, Haynes has helmed romantic melodrama Carol (2015), the music documentary The Velvet Underground (2021) and true-story, legal thriller Dark Waters (2019). Genres do not confine Haynes, although there is a recurring theme of transgressive stories inspired by real life. May December is one such narrative.
Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman) is an actor lodging with the Atherton-Yoo family in Savannah, Georgia. She is there to study Gracie Atherton (Julianne Moore), who was at the heart of a long-forgotten tabloid scandal, for an upcoming film. It’s fertile ground for dissecting celebrity culture and the Portman-Moore duo, a heavyweight showdown if there ever was one, prove to be more than able to toil the soil. Elizabeth’s presence and prodding rekindles buried sexual traumas and latent domestic tensions within the Atherton-Yoo household: Gracie Atherton met Joe Yoo (Charles Melton) when she was 36 years-old and Joe was just 13. Gracie is caught having sex with Joe, leading to a national scandal and a prison sentence for Gracie, where she births her first child. It’s a tale very much derived from the real-life Mary Kay Letourneau case.
Despite the heavy premise, to not laugh while watching May December is a challenge. There are dark quips and well-timed visual witticisms. Melton more than holds his own despite being flanked by thespian royalty. He comes out punching – not literally, fortunately – while maintaining a very conscious boundary of not overdoing it. Every line of dialogue is weighed with a perfectly measured dose of emotion. He plays the role of a father suffering from arrested development to perfection, with sunken shoulders and folded arms caricaturing the stroppy body language you might expect from a petulant child. And then, in the next moment, he is the doting dad who tries to come to terms with becoming an empty-nester. Voyages into uncomfortable, and adult, conversations about relationship issues are fractiously shut down by Gracie.
Joe’s caterpillar-rearing hobby may seem boyish because, well, he still is a boy. Deep down, Joe Yoo is fundamentally a child trapped in an adult body. The one who struggles to smoke his first joint, and one who doesn’t know how to navigate the rulebook of casual sex. Joe cheats with Elizabeth but this detail hardly registers as adulterous as the film rushes on, churning his traumatised emotion into a slab of cinematic drama. Instead this brief sexual diversion reads more like Elizabeth’s case-study for sleeping with Joe – method acting, if you will.
Haynes is here to invert and investigate. Domesticity is his latest target and the Atherton-Yoos are ripe for the picking, what with the 23 year age-gap and all. Gracie is a more complex subject than Joe. She is equally infantile – an exaggerated lisp accentuates dialogue that is equally pitiable and cruel in the way that is unique to children. Blunt, uncompromising and stubborn to a fault. She sees in binary only: black and white, right and wrong. Despite a prison sentence and the not-forgotten tabloid scandal, Gracie seems to be at ease with her actions and is unable to see the inherent immorality in grooming Joe. Rather, she very much believes she was the one seduced, the one to be pitied. “Some say I’m robbing the cradle, but I say she’s robbing the grave”. Hubert Farnsworth from Matt Groening’s Futurama echoes the black comedy at the core of May December and acutely sums up Gracie’s perspective. Inverted, of course.
Jethro is the film critic at FETCH London and a freelance culture journalist. He has had words in Empire, The Big Issue and other outlets.