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The magnificent melodrama of ‘May December’

The magnificent melodrama of ‘May December’
Kaitlyn Close

This month, Natalie Portman, Julianne Moore and Charles Melton star in Todd Haynes’ new movie, “May December,” now on Netflix in all its tabloid glory.

The film is loosely adapted from the real life story of Mary Kay Letourneau. Letourneau, a former school teacher and convicted sex offender, was sentenced to over seven years in prison in the late 1990s for engaging in a sexual relationship with her then 12-year-old student, Vili Fualaau. Letourneau, 34, had two of Fualaau’s children before he turned 15. After Letourneau’s release from prison, the two were married until 2019.

“May December” casts Moore as the Letourneau character, Gracie; Melton as the Fualaau character, Joe; and Portman as an actress, Elizabeth, who is doing research on the couple in order to play Gracie in a movie.

The complexity of “May December” is that it presents itself as a melodrama but has a deeply emotional tragedy at its core. The film is shot like a ‘90s soap opera, with soft, glossy cinematography and a dramatic piano soundtrack. The subject matter is also evocative of the sort of tabloid entertainment that might be found in a cheap TV show. The relationships, betrayals and twists in the film are all heightened and over-wrought. 

Haynes derives the humor of his movie from a false presentation of icky exploitation, which he makes explicitly clear in one of the first scenes in the film: Gracie is in the kitchen, staring into her refrigerator. Suddenly, there’s a quick zoom into her face and the dramatic piano score sounds off. The implication is that there’s something terrible in the fridge, or that Gracie has realized something horrible. Instead, she says, “I don’t think we have enough hot dogs.” 

It’s hilarious and winking. Haynes is playing with the expectations of an audience who want the gossip magazine version of “May December.”

This isn’t to say that the film shies away from the drama at its core. The mastery of the movie is its balancing act between tabloid entertainment and reckoning with the damage its central relationship caused. In fact, the three main characters can serve as emblems for the two sides of that balance. 

Elizabeth represents exploitation. As she weaves herself farther into the Gracie persona, she crosses lines and treats the real people her movie’s about as tools for her advancement. Portman is brilliant at imitating Moore, but her narrative arc is all about the difference between imitation and reality. Elizabeth is endlessly fascinating to watch, meshing Portman’s beauty with her character’s ugly personality, and is the definition of a soap opera primadonna archetype.

Joe represents tragedy. Melton gives an incredible performance as a young man beginning to realize that the life he’s led may not have been a healthy or happy one. Joe is a victim who didn’t realize he was being victimized, and every scene of him interacting with his college-aged kids or taking care of a neurotic and gaslighting Gracie hammers home the trauma he’s been dealt. Despite the fact that Moore and Portman are on the poster, in many ways “May December” is Melton’s movie. 

Gracie’s theme is caught between the two. Moore plays Gracie with an insidious fragility. She’s in some ways cartoonishly over the top –– Moore gives her character a lisp, for instance –– but in other moments she is terrifyingly realistic. This is a woman who is an abuser and a predator, and watching her is an equivalent thrill to watching a true-crime documentary or reading a serial killer’s Wikipedia page. There’s an inherent evil to her, and engaging with her story is like watching a lion at the zoo. It can’t hurt you, but it’s dangerous, which makes it fun to watch.

At the same time, Gracie is clearly a mentally ill and broken woman. She’s a control freak and a neurotic, leaving Joe to take care of her during breakdowns over the seemingly inconsequential. Moore commands pity. However, Moore’s performance never wavers from suggesting Gracie deserved the prison sentence and consequences she was dealt.

“May December” is endlessly entertaining, rewarding on rewatch and a potential Oscars contender. While not necessarily appropriate for your next family Christmas movie, it’s certain to be one of the best things you May see this December.

Rating: 5/5 Hot Dogs

Kaitlyn Close
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About the Contributors
Pruett Norris, Multimedia Editor
Pruett Norris (he/him) is a senior double majoring in English with a concentration in Film Studies and Electronic Media/Broadcasting. This is his second year with The Appalachian.
Kaitlyn Close, Graphics Editor
Kaitlyn Close (she/her) is a senior Graphic Design major and Digital Marketing minor. This is her second year with The Appalachian.
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