I swear for weeks I knew Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore were getting acclaim for a movie called MAY DECEMBER, and I assumed it was about them falling in love. I was pretty thrown off when I learned it was in fact a story inspired by Mary Kay Letourneau, a teacher who in the late ‘90s went to prison for second-degree child rape of one of her sixth grade students, insisted he was her soulmate, gave birth to two of his daughters while incarcerated, then got out and had a 14 year marriage with him. It’s an infamous story worldwide, but especially in the Seattle area, since it happened here. It brings out all the dumb radio call-in show takes about “heh heh, that’s what most boys want ‘Hot For Teacher,’ right?” but of course it is complicated by his choice to stay with her after he became an adult.
In this film directed by Todd Haynes (FAR FROM HEAVEN, CAROL) from a screenplay by Samy Burch (COYOTE VS. ACME), story by Burch and her husband Alex Mechanik, something similar happened in Savannah, Georgia. Moore (NEXT) plays Gracie Atherton-Yoo, ex-convict and tabloid mainstay, now married to grown up Joe (Charles Melton, BAD BOYS FOR LIFE). She has a baking business and lots of friends, their oldest daughter Honor (Piper Curda, THE WRETCHED) is away at college, twins Charlie (Gabriel Chung) and Mary (Elizabeth Yu) are about to graduate high school. Portman (PRIDE + PREJUDICE + ZOMBIES [producer only]) plays Elizabeth Berry, a famous TV actress in town to spend time with the family as preparation for playing Gracie in a movie.
As much as the details have been changed, Moore is definitely imitating the way Letourneau talked, and the character is very much based on her seeming lack of shame or introspection about it all. Elizabeth comes up with these overly charitable questions about where she’s coming from and Gracie acts like they’re just silly things to ever think about. Other times she seems less delusional, more manipulative. One scene is clearly inspired by an infamous TV interview where Letourneau tried to get her then-husband to say that he “was in charge” and “seduced” her when he was 12.
But the true story is a jumping off point for a fictional one; the focus is Elizabeth as she gets to know these people, asking probing questions, occasionally knowing to throw in rehearsed-sounding lines about how respectful the movie will be, but sometimes seeming to be asking more out of morbid curiosity than research.
It’s honestly not as heavy as it might sound, but Haynes keeps a steady hum of low level discomfort by having everyone act like this is normal – not the family situation (they’re all used to their lives, after all), but having a celebrity hanging around, involved in family events, shown hospitality while asking about traumas they claim not to think about much. Just like they pretend that Gracie’s past is no big deal, they pretend that it’s normal to have a celebrity following her around and asking everybody about her.
Everyone swears they’re an open book, even Gracie’s very friendly ex-husband Tom Atherton (D.W. Moffett, FALLING DOWN), who meets Elizabeth for lunch and speaks kindly of Gracie and her family even though she broke up their marriage and really messed up their son Georgie (Cory Michael Smith, FIRST MAN), who was Joe’s classmate. Tom still calls Joe “the boy.”
Georgie is a big ball of chaos and bitterness who gives her more dirt on Gracie than anyone else, but also tries to blackmail her into making him music supervisor on the movie. When Honor comes to town for the graduation she has her own grievances with her mom, not based on a specific betrayal like Georgie’s, but the overall unhealthy relationship. For example she reminds everybody at the graduation dinner that when she graduated her gift from Gracie was a scale. We see glimpses of Gracie’s emotional torment of her daughters that seem more like relatable “my mother is terrible” problems than “you may know my mother from a famous scandal” ones, but also give a hint at how we got here.
Elizabeth’s fame feels more real than the way some movies do it. She wears sunglasses in public and acts nonchalant, you can see people recognizing her and being nervous or excited to talk to her, but mostly people are polite and don’t freak out too much. She’s always aware of her status and how people will treat her but she’s not pampered, stays in a regular place, drives herself around. A few of her credits are mentioned but they don’t show us wacky clips or posters or get too specific about what she’s known for, which I think makes it seem morereal.
For Gracie it’s a funny character detail that she seems genuinely unimpressed by it all. Then again, she agrees to do it. I like when she’s showing Elizabeth around, just acts like she’s a friend until she casually mentions “she’s playing me in a movie, so I’m trying to show her a good time.” Everyone knows Gracie and her family, and seems to accept them (unless you count whoever keeps sending them boxes of shit in the mail – another thing Gracie acts like isn’t a big deal). People treat this as a fun novelty that a celebrity is visiting their small town, but they’re not stupid. They can figure out why a movie would be made about Gracie. So it’s a big blinking arrow sign pointing at that thing everybody tries to forget about, but Elizabeth doesn’t seem to worry about that too much.
In one humorously queasy scene, Elizabeth comes to speak to the high school drama class. It’s so funny, but I think plausible, that a drama teacher would jump at that opportunity despite the specific circumstances. Mary is in the class, I bet when Eliabeth waves to her she feels both a flush of wow, the famous actress I know waved at me in front of everybody pride and a deep well of they know why I know her shame. Then she sits uncomfortably as Elizabeth talks about liking to play morally ambiguous characters.
Much to the embarrassment of the teacher, an obnoxious kid (Drew Scheid, who got impaled on a fence as Oscar in HALLOWEEN) asks what it’s like to film sex scenes. Elizabeth says it’s okay, and then goes into way more detail than you’d expect about what it’s like and how sometimes she can actually get off on it. Is she testing what it’s like to be inappropriate with students, as part of her preparations? Is she doing it unknowingly because she’s more like Gracie than she realizes? I don’t know.
I like Elizabeth because she is a morally ambiguous character. She has a pleasantness about her and an advantage of being the audience’s surrogate, welcomed into this world and having it explained to her. But she becomes more interesting the more you start to suspect she can’t be trusted. She points out that she and Joe are both 36, the age Gracie was when she got busted, and starts spending more time with him than anybody. On one hand it’s kind of a relief that she’s treating him like a person more than an interview subject, on the other hand, is it her business to be hanging out with him?
I suppose if you believed she was a totally rational person that would be out the window after the scene where she visits the pet store where Gracie first got caught with Joe, asks to be left alone in the stock room where it happened and then, uh… considers it deeply.
That’s one of the many scenes that I think is definitely funny while also causing other contradictory feelings, but some people don’t see any humor in the movie, judging from complaints about its Golden Globes nomination for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy. I don’t know, maybe I wouldn’t exactly call it a comedy, but it’s as much about being very dryly funny as it is about being anything else. For whatever tiny amount it’s worth, IMDb calls it “Comedy Drama,” and it’s produced by Will Ferrell via Gloria Sanchez Productions, the counterpart to Gary Sanchez Productions “with a focus on female voices in comedy.” On the other hand, Haynes cites two Ingmar Bergman films as inspirations.
One point of discussion has been the distinctive score by Marcelo Zarvos (BROOKLYN’S FINEST, SIN NOMBRE, AMERICAN ULTRA, THE EQUALIZER 3). It’s credited as adapted from Michel Legrand’s score for THE GO-BETWEEN, and it kind of seems like a more honest version of that phenomenon of a director getting attached to the temp score and asking the composer to make something similar. Instead they treated Legrand’s theme as a piece of classical music to expand into their own score.
There’s a part early on where what the captions describe as “dramatic piano music” follows Gracie’s discovery that they may not have enough hot dogs for the barbecue. Some interpreted it as “camp,” or mimicking a true crime TV movie or soap opera, but Haynes said in a Variety interview with Guy Lodge, “No, it was not anything that I was trying to do at all.” Zarvos told Variety, “The music destabilizes the viewer and is constantly taking you out of the film… it is a character that is almost on a separate track and guides you out of the story in a very deliberate way.”
I think a comparison can be made to Haynes’ 1987 film SUPERSTAR: THE KAREN CARPENTER STORY. For copyright reasons it only exists as a bootleg, and I haven’t seen it since the ‘90s, but it’s an intense biopic acted out with Barbie dolls. Haynes obviously understands that you may ping pong between being amused by the goofy artifice and being emotionally involved in the sad story it tells, but I think the goal is to test your capacity for doing both at the same time.
There is certainly plenty of tragedy to go with the comedy in MAY DECEMBER, but “the boy” at the center of it, Joe, comes off as a positive figure and the heart of the movie. He’s the victim in this whole sordid backstory, but has always held his head high. Now here he is still quite young but about to become an empty nester, alone with this woman who sometimes talks to him like he’s her son, weirdly bosses him around, swears she is happy and has no guilt, but has frequent bawling fits. I don’t think Joe knows how much he’s holding in until he uncharacteristically shares a joint with Charlie on the roof and it seems to knock something loose. You can see how to Charlie Joe is some weird mix of a parent and a peer. He feels for him and covers for him like he’s trying to help a friend hide from their parents that they’re drunk.
Here’s a SPOILER WARNING so we can discuss a kinda inevitable, kinda shocking swerve late in the movie. Elizabeth seems increasingly attracted to Joe, gets him into her hotel room, initiates what turns into (brief) sex, then coldly insults him. Is this her getting too into the character? Or is this what she’s always like and that’s why she gravitates to the character? Or could it be her learning from Gracie’s bad example to use people and not be ashamed? Also, is he attracted to her because of her mimicry of Gracie, or despite it? It’s a movie that suggests all kinds of interesting questions that don’t necessarily have or need definitive answers.
With this particular subject matter you might expect some moralizing. But it goes without saying that Gracie is wrong, and continuing a cycle of abuse (a couple different ones, really). We see the effects of that on all the characters, not that we would need to – we could figure out how to feel about it anyway. I think the movie is less interested in what to think about Gracie than what to think about Elizabeth latching onto Gracie’s whole horrible existence and trying to boil it down into some pretentious catch phrases about truth and emotional honesty and shit. She’s an unreliable interpreter of an unreliable narrator.
I love the punchline that we see a little bit of them filming the movie at the end, and it looks like cheesy bullshit. The director thinks they have the scene but Elizabeth requests more takes because she’s getting closer to the truth. Or maybe enjoying it a little too much. We don’t know.
It’s also a movie about Joe and his kids, and their hope to be happy and healthy despite growing up this way. One of the interesting ironies, and what leaves it not feeling too bleak, is that even though none of Elizabeth’s noble artist talk is very convincing, and the project’s intentions seem to be only exploitative, the process does force Joe to reflect on his life in a way he never has, and to finally talk about it. That seems to bring him growth and inspire a change in his life. Elizabeth’s sleazy movie ends up being a good thing by accident.
There was in fact a TV movie about the real case: the USA Network’s ALL AMERICAN GIRL: THE MARY KAY LETOURNEAU STORY (2000). It starred Penelope Ann Miller, who was 36 that year, just like Elizabeth now. According to a Tribune article from the time, Letourneau did cooperate with the production, but Miller had to talk to her over the phone because she was still in prison. In the article Miller is quoted as saying “We’ve tried to tell the story honestly and realistically without bias,” which sounds like something Elizabeth would say. But I’m gonna assume Miller did not do any of this other stuff. Still, if Criterion decides to make MAY DECEMBER one of the Netflix movies they release on blu-ray, they should get her to do a commentary track.