Unmasking Complexity: A Review of May December

February 18, 2024

Reviewed by Elisa Herrera

My initial impression of “May December” was marked by the surprise expressed on social media over Charles Melton’s lack of an Oscar nomination for his role. This sparked speculation and discussion, particularly on platforms like TikTok, where followers questioned whether the actor, known for his role as Reggie in “Riverdale,” was being unfairly overlooked by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The movie’s reception and Melton’s performance became a focal point of online conversations, generating noise and debate within the online community. 

The film loosely takes inspiration from the life of Mary Kay Letourneau, an American teacher who developed a connection with her sixth-grade student, Vili Fualaau, at the ages of 36 and 12, respectively. In 1997, Kim pleaded guilty for second-degree rape, resulting in a three-month jail term with the stipulation that she should never have contact with Fualaau again. Post her release, she breached the court order, leading to a seven-year return to prison. Released once more in 2005, Kim went on to marry Fualaau. The narrative traces their eventual separation in 2019, with Kim’s life taking a poignant turn as she passed away from cancer the following year.

Mary Kay Letourneau and Vili Fualaau / Credit: Handout

“May December” draws inspiration from interviews with Mary Kay Letourneau, yet it diverges significantly from being a straightforward biopic. The film, directed by Todd Haynes, defies expectations and takes unexpected turns. The viewer’s anticipation for a typical morbid crime story is subverted, as Haynes introduces a unique twist that adds an extra layer of discomfort to the viewing experience. The movie challenges conventional genre expectations, creating an unsettling atmosphere that sets it apart from the anticipated narrative trajectory.

The movie takes place in Savannah, Georgia, and unfolds around a research expedition led by the renowned film and television personality, Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman). She embarks on this journey to visit Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore) and her husband Joe Yoo (Charles Melton). Casting our minds back to the 1990s, Gracie, a 36-year-old mother of two at the time, and Joe, who had just completed seventh grade, became involved in a controversial relationship while employed at a local pet store. This scandal captured the attention of the media, resulting in Gracie’s incarceration, during which she gave birth to Joe’s child behind bars. Despite the initial tumult, they eventually tied the knot and remain a couple, with their children on the verge of graduating from high school. Elizabeth has secured the role of Gracie in a movie and is present to closely examine and understand her life for the purpose of her portrayal.

From the outset, it becomes apparent that this is no ordinary film with “May December” securing a nomination for Best Original Screenplay at the Oscars. The lighting and cinematography deviate markedly from the typical Hollywood style, setting a distinctive tone. In the initial 10 minutes, a series of events unfolds, prompting shared glances of awkwardness with the person seated beside you. The scenes, though serene and quiet, starkly contrast with the underlying turmoil experienced by the characters.

The movie introduces an element of ambiguity regarding its central conflict. Initially, Gracie and her husband Joe appear to be an untroubled couple, potentially facing unfair judgement from their neighbours. Early scenes radiate warmth and laughter, creating an impression of a harmonious relationship. However, a sudden shift occurs when Gracie, preparing for a cookout, discovers a shortage of hot dogs in the fridge. The introduction of dramatic piano music during this seemingly mundane moment contributes to the overall unsettling atmosphere.

This deliberate choice by the director adds a layer of discomfort, leading the audience to question the true nature of the issues within the film. The juxtaposition of outward tranquillity and the disquieting undertones challenges conventional expectations, highlighting “May December” as a unique cinematic experience that defies traditional Hollywood norms.

Along the movie there’s a lot of metaphors and scenes that make you swallow a bitter pill. Something is wrong and you are desperate to make the characters see it as soon as possible. The heart aches when you see the emotional manipulation Gracie has with Joe, and his reaction to this makes you feel as if there’s no air in the room. He appears to retain a childlike demeanour at the age of 36. His speech is marked by shyness and hesitancy, reminiscent of the seventh-grader he once was, despite approaching an empty nest phase. Over time, Joe has cultivated a profound interest in endangered Monarch butterflies, involving himself in their breeding at home and releasing them into the wild. Although not the most discreet metaphor, it holds a certain beauty.

Consequently, you find yourself grappling with a myriad of emotions as Charles Melton’s performance unfolds. This substantiates the rumours circulating on social media – he’s indeed a diamond in the rough, hidden within a teenage series. His acting, intricately weaving with the exceptional script, prompts you to shift in your seat, attempting to shake off the intense agony he powerfully conveys.

However, amid this assortment of imperfect individuals, Elizabeth, brought to life by Portman, emerges as arguably the most profoundly troubled character among them. She embodies the judgement, fixation, and morbidity that audiences typically experience when confronted with this type of content. It reflects the peculiar inclination to derive entertainment from a heart-wrenching story, blurring the boundaries between comprehending the troubled character and potentially romanticising them in a misguided manner.

Credit: Rocket Science

“May December” captivates audiences with its unconventional narrative, delving into the lives of deeply flawed characters portrayed by a talented cast. The film challenges traditional storytelling and Hollywood norms, utilising camp aesthetics to highlight the dissonance between on-screen events and audience reactions. Charles Melton’s remarkable performance shines through, particularly in conveying the complexity of his character, Joe. The movie explores dark themes with a unique blend of discomfort and beauty, questioning society’s tendency to sensationalise troubled stories. In the end, “May December” is a thought-provoking and visually distinct cinematic experience.

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