‘May December’: Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore Are a Masterful Pair in Todd Haynes’ Darkly Compelling Tale of Scandal

What exactly was going through their mind? That’s a question we all ask when a salacious story dominates the headlines. Todd Haynes’ “May December” is a creeping, subtly lurid exploration of the lingering aftershocks of a scandal. The characters may be fictional but it’s easy to pinpoint the source of inspiration as being the case of Mary Kay Letourneau, the elementary school teacher who became infamous in the ‘90s for sleeping with her 12-year-old student, then marrying him years later when he became a legal adult. Through one of this year’s best pairings, Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore, Haynes has made an absorbing drama that looks at such a case in terms of its human wreckage. 

Anything that grabs headlines is sure to sooner or later made into a movie. That’s why actor Elizabeth (Portman) visits a small American town to meet Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Moore) a middle-aged woman infamous around town for her national scandal from 24 years ago, when she had an affair with a 13-year-old teen, Joe Yoo (Charles Melton). For years Gracie has been married to an adult Joe and together has raised several children, some of whom are already off to college. As Elizabeth drops in, the environment is instantly awkward and also fascinating. It is clear Gracie and Joe have been trying to live a normal life, ignoring the lingering shadow over their story. Elizabeth meets some of their family and Gracie’s former spouse. The portrait begins to take on darker tinges as the manipulative natures of Gracie and Elizabeth overlap, while Joe grapples with the emerging realities of the emotional traumas he has refused to face.

“May December” marks a turning point for Haynes as a director while keeping in touch with themes that have always obsessed him. Long known for his rich visuals mixed with high emotions, Haynes has been an heir to filmmakers such as Douglas Sirk and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Their melodramas were riveting and colorful social critiques. Haynes’ “Far From Heaven” and “Carol” are the best manifestations of his style, exploring interracial love and gay affairs in the repressed 1950s. With “May December” he maintains his pristine compositions but with a starker style. Aesthetically he’s also referencing modern TV soaps and true crime movies without overkill. Sometimes the camera will zoom in dramatically on Gracie closing a fridge, or the music by Marcelo Zarvos uses a threatening piano note that feels borrowed from some ‘90s true crime TV movie. The great difference is that Haynes may be referencing these elements but the material itself is never shallow. 

What develops is an intelligently complex series of portraits that all come together to form an ultimately sad, tragic bigger picture. The power of it rests in the performances. First, Portman and Moore deliver a master class in acting during every scene they inhabit. What becomes a case of opposites slowly turns into personalities melding together. Gracie with her childish lisp voice is clearly a woman whose personal growth was stunted at some point in life. Her ex-husband tells Elizabeth that he’s sure Gracie never quite processed what was wrong with being a 36-year-old woman sleeping with a 13-year-old boy. Then a particular observation or phrase reveals Gracie’s darker side. At one point during an argument she blatantly tells Joe, “you seduced me.” It’s the case of an abuser living detached from rational thinking. Elizabeth is also manipulative in her own way. She can be quietly condescending to these small town locals, with that subtle sense of superiority that comes from being a worldly, successful actor from the big city. She also knows when to flaunt her looks to get information. Yet, Elizabeth will never truly tap into the depths of this story. Gracie is a fascinating project for her, but she’s too jaded to fully comprehend who she’s exploiting. During a phone meeting with producers she rejects audition tapes for candidates to play Joe as a kid, demanding they get someone “sexy.”

For Charles Melton this should be a great breakthrough role. For too long he’s been strapped with teen roles or background macho types on shows like “Riverdale” and movies like “Bad Boys for Life.” Here he turns Joe into the story’s most tragic figure. Elizabeth is like the disturbance he needs to suddenly confront the predatory nature of what happened to him. She wonders aloud how they’re both in their late 30s, yet he already has kids going to college. Like Gracie, his mannerisms reveal a grown person who has never truly matured. He’s texting some mystery person behind Gracie’s back and after sex offers to get a towel like a virginal teen. There’s bits of dark comedy that are also meant to channel the unnerving reality that both Gracie and Joe are so far apart in age yet so close in emotional development. One can only imagine the impact on the children. Their son, Charlie (Gabriel Chung), can’t wait to leave for school and during a lunch with Elizabeth, he quietly walks off to his room and blasts loud music. Such details are Haynes’ way of capturing how behind every shocking story, human lives are still involved. When certain shows bank off of serial murders or scandals, it’s easy to forget someone out there will carry the baggage of the event forever.

What answers can Haynes find at the end of this journey? None that are simple, or even clear, because life goes on, whether painfully or with closure. At a graduation Joe breaks down, like a man trapped in an inner hell he only just realized he inhabits. Gracie may never face up to what she is. Elizabeth can play the role on the eventual movie set but never grasp it. The truth is, in a sense, we morbid consumers of these stories are like Elizabeth, addicted to the fascination but never bothering to really grasp the disturbing human implications. There is almost an invisible link here to one of Haynes’ most infamous films, his 1988 short “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story,” which portrays singer Karen Carpenter’s battle with anorexia with Barbie dolls. It’s a strange, haunting little film that somehow says so much more than a mere documentary. “May December” focuses on the faces of Portman and Moore as maps of manipulation, hidden scars and countless other emotions no tabloid could ever capture. It’s about the deeper stories behind the shocking details.

May December” releases Nov. 17 in select theaters and begins streaming Dec. 1 on Netflix.