The story of May Kay Letourneau, the American sex offender found guilty of second-degree rape of a 12-year-old child, has inspired Todd Haynes’ new film, May December, which lands on Netflix this week. It sees Natalie Portman plays Elizabeth, an actor travelling to Georgia to meet a woman who had an affair with a 13-year-old boy that she will soon portray in a biopic.
It has been 20 years since the relationship between Grace (played by Julianne Moore) and Joe (Charles Melton) made its way onto the front pages of the tabloid newspapers, and the pair look to have settled into a seemingly normal life; a nice waterfront house, kids soon to be departing for college, but when Elizabeth merely scratches at the surface, she finds that there’s deep-set trauma and buried resentment.
Each of the main characters of May December is seemingly always on the precipice of breakdown, with each equally performing their particular methods of desperately trying to keep their shit together. Gracie seemingly ignores her, let’s face it, one-time paedophilia by baking cakes and pretending to have a wonderful relationship with her husband and children.
Joe, however, seems to have more of a difficult time; he’s texting to the point of flirtation with a fellow butterfly enthusiast and laments the passing of his own childhood and adolescence as his children suddenly turn the age of going to college. When his son returns, he smokes weed with him for the first time and bursts down in tears when worried about his position as a father, something he clearly never had the maturity to do at the age of 18.
And when Joe finally does bring up the elephant in the room with Gracie, as to whether he was really old enough to make the decision of having children at such a young age, drawing attention to her manipulation, she shoots him down without care, despite him clearly being on the verge of a mental breakdown, showing her to be more callous than her head-in-the-cloud demeanour initially suggests.
Elizabeth also seems to be torn in the way that many actors often are between managing her real life, of which we get rare glimpses (a handful of short conversations with a mysterious fiancé), and putting herself into a character, one which is increasingly aloof, morally inept and notoriously difficult to pin down.
Typical of many of Haynes’ movies, May December is an absorbing yet uncomfortable watch, mostly for the way it is presented. As in his earlier Julianne Moore-starring film Safe, Haynes employs an almost murder mystery score that ramps the tension up so much that proceedings nearly become humorous.
Humour is a central part of the delivery, perhaps indicative of the fact that there is a stark cover-up here, the trauma of Gracie’s immoral love and subsequent imprisonment, the loss of innocence and childhood in Joe, and the difficulty and obsession of Elizabeth to portray Gracie in a way that is at once truthful yet sexy and entertaining.
Perhaps best of all is Haynes’ treatment of fiction vs reality. There’s naturally an air of meta in a film about a film about a true story, but more importantly, there’s an examination of whether narrative or truth is more important to a given individual. For Elizabeth, it’s clearly the story of Joe and Gracie, and when she calls it thus, i.e. a “story”, Joe is disheartened, rebutting the actor and telling her, “It’s not a story; it’s my life”.
Haynes posits that fiction is indeed more alluring than reality, not only in production terms but also in the sense that we each weave our own personal fiction, whether it be through love or denial, to prevent the truth from hurting us and there’s a desperation for control, particularly in Gracie, that makes those particular fictions all the more domineering and sometimes vicious.
May December releases in UK cinemas November 17th and on Sky Cinema December 8th.