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Some of the main conflicts in Todd Haynes’s new film, “May December” (which opens Friday), are practically shouted from behind the camera, and they drown out other ones on which the story equally depends. The movie is a loose adaptation of the real-life story of Mary Kay Letourneau and Vili Fualaau, who met in the mid-nineties at middle school and began a sexual relationship. Letourneau was a teacher in her thirties; Fualaau was twelve. Letourneau was convicted of rape and went to prison. They had two daughters together and, after her release, reunited and married. In “May December,” the couple is Gracie Atherton (Julianne Moore) and Joe Yoo (Charles Melton). He’s now in his thirties, and she’s in her fifties. They have three children and live in Savannah, Georgia. She’s a baker who also teaches classes on floral arrangements; he’s an X-ray technician, but his true passion is monarch butterflies, which he lovingly raises and releases into the wild. Gracie has a grand and lordly manner, and the mild-mannered Joe gets the brunt of her lording: when he tends his specimens, she orders him to get his “bugs” out of the house before company arrives.
The company arriving is Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman), a well-known TV actress, who’s preparing to portray Gracie in a movie and wants to get to know the family. Gracie and Joe are desperate for solicitude and empathy—as local pariahs, they are all too accustomed to finding boxes of shit delivered to their home—and they eagerly welcome Elizabeth. Haynes quickly makes clear that both Gracie and Elizabeth are narcissistic manipulators—perhaps a match made in cinematic heaven, but one that quickly skews a viewer’s rooting interest. (Whom the viewer is rooting for—I’d say by design—is Joe, but Haynes keeps Joe as his hole card, indeterminate nearly throughout and then revealed with precise and narrow certainty.)
Elizabeth is TV-famous—heads turn when she walks into the local high school and a restaurant—but not taken seriously as an actress, and she has a heap of ambition invested in the film. She’s got something to prove, she tells Gracie, because she comes from a family of academics who considered her too intelligent to be an actress. (Gracie’s comebacks to the humblebrag are priceless.) Though Elizabeth is just as self-centered as Gracie, she is comically ill-suited to portray her. When Gracie mentions that one of her brothers lives in Minneapolis and works for the Twins, Elizabeth wonders which twins, and Gracie, dripping with condescension worthy of Katharine Hepburn, explains that it’s “a professional baseball team.” The actress isn’t really interested in this world—or in Gracie or the family—only in the success that she hopes their story can bring her. Unsurprisingly, her ethical judgment proves as dubious as her artistic intentions.
The front-loading of the movie with such clear tensions leaves lots of cinematic space to fill, whether with information or mood, characterization or context. The effect is of a self-imposed directorial challenge, and, if Haynes doesn’t quite carry it off, he at least delivers an audacious effort, packed with memorable lines and images, gestures and inflections. He skillfully draws out the mismatch of Gracie and Elizabeth in his casting, not to mention his direction of the actors. Moore externalizes her dramatic expressions, subtly but unequivocally, whereas Portman expresses much by doing nothing: her acting is in her thought, and the less she pushes, the more comes through. Portman’s masklike manner serves Elizabeth well when meeting and questioning townspeople about Gracie—including Gracie’s ex-husband (D. W. Moffett) and her ex-lawyer (Lawrence Arancio)—but Gracie sees right through it to Elizabeth’s hungry hollow. In one of the movie’s great moments, Elizabeth gives Gracie a hug; Gracie doesn’t lift a hand in return.
What’s not out front (and what would be a cruel spoiler to divulge) is Elizabeth’s gamesmanship involving Joe, her contemporary, whom she attempts to envision through Gracie’s eyes. Haynes, working with a script by Samy Burch, stages the resulting games with a chilly briskness that’s matched by his shifting dramatic perspectives. Such is his casual yet cagily selective omniscience that the result sometimes feels like a deterministic marionette theatre with the strings showing. There are some reversals and revelations that play more like decisions to score moral points than like narrative outcomes. Haynes makes his own perspectives plain from the start—he looks seriously askance at both Elizabeth and Gracie, but nonetheless does his best to accord them a measure of dignity and empathy. He’s clearly on Team Joe, which gives him the dramatic problem that he doesn’t seem to find the person to whom he’s most sympathetic especially interesting.
The clarity of these conflicts is achieved by some conspicuous omissions. First off, there’s no definition of the relationship between Elizabeth and the couple. They seem to have consented to let this actress into their home, but what’s the transaction? Is there a contract for their life story? Are they being paid? Or is the expected payoff only a sympathetic portrayal, a positive public image? The film also gives no sense of the family’s internal negotiations about Elizabeth and the movie. The couple’s three children are unavoidably involved with the actress, too. We see their reactions, but these reactions have no firm significance, because what the kids agreed to, or what their parents foisted on them, remains unknown. The underlying matter of “May December” is the Hollywood way of doing things; it’s a cautionary reminder about how fast to run when someone asks to film your life story. The movie pivots on the irony that Elizabeth, in dubious pursuit of what she considers the truth about the family, enters the household and becomes an instant catalyst of latent reactions, a kind of walking truth serum, a negative of a negative. (The result, unfortunately, is a climactic scene, bringing decades of trouble to the surface, that’s one of the most ludicrous “duh” moments in recent movies.)
The film’s sympathies are drawn as if with a ruler—only the boxes of shit are perhaps a bit much. It’s as if Haynes were pulling a reverse Wolfie, making sure (exactly as Martin Scorsese didn’t do, in “The Wolf of Wall Street”) that his own stern judgments suffuse the drama throughout. And who can blame him, given the appalling backstory of the Atherton-Yoo family, compared with the merely venal sins of Scorsese’s fraudster? Yet the result is that Haynes takes hold of an immensely strange and troubling story and renders it . . . just fine. In delivering it, the movie offers good actors, good dialogue, good performances, a steady tone, a few memorable twists, some striking moments—it’s manifestly the work of a major director—but it means what it means, and it means nothing more. It leaves no great mystery and allows no great ambiguity, because Haynes knows where he stands at every moment and wants to make sure that the viewer knows, too. He trims off all the loose ends, lest someone pull at one of them and make the fixed perspective unravel. As so often happens, trouble with substance starts as trouble with form. The movie’s dramatic framework is bound up tightly and sealed off, and Haynes doesn’t puncture or fracture it to let in the wealth of details that the story implies—of art and money, power and presumption. The result is engaging and resonant—but it nonetheless feels incomplete, unfinished. ♦