Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | November 28th, 2023
May December (Todd Haynes, 2023) 3 out of 4 stars.
In 1997, 35-year-old grade-school teacher Mary Kay Letourneau was arrested for raping a 13-year-old former student of hers, Vili Fualaau. She gave birth to a child from that union later that spring, while still waiting to be sentenced. She would only serve 6 months for that crime, but when, the following year, she was once more caught having sex with the boy, she was sentenced to a much longer term, during which she would give birth to their second child. She was released in 2004 and soon thereafter married Fualaau, then 21. They eventually separated in 2019. Letourneau died from cancer in 2020.
Screenwriter Samy Burch uses that shocking true-life tale as the inspiration for the new film May December, directed by Todd Haynes (The Velvet Underground). Starring a trio of actors—Julianne Moore (When You Finish Saving the World), Natalie Portman (Thor: Love and Thunder), and Charles Melton (The Sun Is Also a Star)—doing impressive work all around, the movie is a work of tremendous narrative and emotional ambition that is never afraid to tackle uncomfortable issues. Unfortunately, sometimes the mise-en-scène and musical score can’t get out of the way, impeding our appreciation of those performances. They nevertheless ultimately win the day, leaving us unsettled by what we have witnessed.
Moore plays Gracie Atherton-Yoo, the Letourneau stand-in. Melton plays her now-husband, Joe Yoo, and Portman is Elizabeth Berry, an actress portraying Gracie in a movie about to go into production that is based on the couple’s infamous beginnings. Right away, this conceit allows Haynes many an opportunity to explore, in myriad meta ways, our fascination with that which ought to repulse. While also examining, from many different angles, the wages of abuse and the not-so-healing power of love, Haynes returns, time and again, to the question of exploitation. Who benefits when crime is turned into entertainment? Everyone and no one. We are all perpetrators and victims, at least here.
The story follows what happens when Elizabeth arrives to research the couple’s dynamic and to understand how and why a 35-year-old woman would sleep with a barely pubescent teen. The family still lives in Savannah, Georgia, where everything originally went down, and have raised three children together, one of whom is currently in college and two more (twins) about to graduate high school. From the outside, age difference notwithstanding, they live a seemingly peaceful existence, with happy progeny that appear stable and immune to the long-ago scandal (who nevertheless are not a fan of Elizabeth’s presence).
It is through Elizabeth’s interviews with members of the community—including Gracie’s first husband, the lawyer who defended her, and the owner of the pet shop where Grace and Joe met and consummated their relationship—that we gather further perspective on the past and present. Furthering the creep factor, Gracie has other children from that first marriage—approximately the same age as Joe—who now have children of their own also graduating from high school. Layer upon layer of trauma and tragedy crash against Gracie and Joe’s insistence that theirs is a beautiful love story, untainted by the initial sin.