May/December is a riff on the infamous Mary Kay Letourneau scandal of 1997, but that is where the similarities end. None of the information contained within this film can be taken as “true” in regards to the real couple who inspired the film. Todd Haynes directed and Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore star.
“May December” is a weird film. The tone is serio-comic, with vacillation between the two. “I’m Not There”—Haynes’ 2007 film with different actors playing Bob Dylan—was also weird. Last year, he made “The Velvet Underground,” a good straight-forward documentary. May/December is not a straight-forward anything and most definitely not a documentary.
One of the producers on this film was Will Ferrell. What does that tell you? The tone at times reminded me of Ferrell’s ice-skating movie “Blades of Glory,” except that “Blades of Glory” was actually amusing. This one, for me, was just campy, schmaltzy, and cringe-worthy.
The opening barbecue scene, where Gracie remarks “we’re going to need more hot dogs” comes off as funny only in a semi-sick way. The accompanying melodramatic music was part of the ill-advised plan to play half of this movie for laughs and half of it as serious. I hoped the film might provide insights into why something like this true life 1997 Mary Kay Letourneau incident might have occurred. The “framing device” for the film is that Natalie Portman as the character Elizabeth Berry has agreed to play Gracie (Julianne Moore) in a bio-pic; she is trying to “get inside” Gracie’s head and figure out what makes her tick.
NOT A DOCUMENTARY
The film is not a straightforward recitation (even with names changed to protect the guilty) of the infamous Mary Kay Letourneau case, involving a 34-year-old teacher who began a sexual affair with her middle school student. In real life, Mary Kay’s sixth grade student was just shy of thirteen when the two began having sex.
The story collaborators apparently thought this real-life soap opera drama would be “funny.” It didn’t seem “funny” at the time to the public. It certainly didn’t seem humorous to the families affected by that May/December coupling. It doesn’t seem funny when Gracie was Joe’s teacher. We exist in a time that has seen an increase in child pedophilia. Maybe it’s the fact that I come from a long line of teachers, but I did not find the underlying premise of the movie to be a fountain of comic moments.
Of course, the real-life couple staunchly maintained that they were merely star-crossed lovers for 20 years. It is only late in the plot that Joe begins to articulate some doubts about whether the couple love each other as much as they have claimed through those years. In one scene, Joe (Charles Melton) actually says, “I didn’t know what a big deal it was—having kids.” A strange statement from a young man whom Julianne Moore’s Gracie describes as having been “an old soul” long before she decided to hire him as her assistant at a pet shop and have her way with him in the storage room. (Not, by the way, based on the Letourneau reality.)
For those who don’t remember the Mary Kay Letourneau case, Mary Kay spent 1998 to 2004 in prison as a result of being convicted of felony second degree rape of a child. She was forever listed as a sex offender. The pair did not obey the judge’s order to have no further contact, conceived two children, and married in 2005, soon after Mary Kay was released from prison. (In real life, Mary Kay Letourneau had six children, four from her first marriage to Steve Letourneau and two with Vili Fualaau.) She and Vili remained married for 14 years, separating just one year before Mary Kay’s death at age 58 of stage four colon cancer on July 6, 2020.
Not surprisingly, Steve Letourneau, her first husband, moved to Alaska, remarried (and had more children) and refuses to even comment on Mary Kay. In this film, Steve Letourneau/Tom Atherton is well played by D.W. Moffett. The depiction of him is not favorable.
The letter that is read in the film by Natalie Portman (from Gracie to Joe) indicates that Gracie’s sex life in marriage number one left a lot to be desired. Once she tasted the forbidden fruit that Joe represented, she was loathe to go back to reality—or so the letter, read onscreen by Portman in a scene that made me cringe for her—seems to say.
The fact that the principals in this Romeo and Juliet doomed lovers set-up had a 22-year gap in age is not the reason for censure. There are marriages that feature couples with a large difference in age. Two very senior citizens on the Hollywood scene, major movie stars, have very recently had offspring with their much-younger paramours. Twenty-two years difference in age doesn’t even seem that large when measured against such realities.
So, the difference in age isn’t the issue. The issue is whether a minor (12 or 13) is really capable of making an informed decision when an authority figure in his or her life is suggesting a sexual relationship. Gracie/Mary Kay was put in a position of authority with her young charge and crossed the line, sexually.
Joe is constantly depicted as trying to please, placate, or serve Gracie. She is still in control. One line about Gracie, from a neighbor, is, “She always knows what she wants.” Gracie, as portrayed by Julianne Moore, has logical explanations for actions with her children, but those actions often seem very passive/aggressive. She seems very controlled and in command in the dinner parties and interactions depicted. But let some neighbors cancel their bakery order and Gracie descends into near-breakdown hysteria.
The real Mary Kay Letourneau was diagnosed with bipolar disease. She was told to take her medication and not see her young lover again. She obeyed neither of those orders from a judge, which is why she spent so long in prison. (She was sent back for disobeying the judge’s orders. Donald Trump: take note.”)
In this fictionalized case, the student is in 7th grade (not 6th) and is Korean, not Hawaiian. The pair does have children, who are about to graduate and go off to college. In real life, Mary Kay Letourneau and Vili Fualaau were married for 14 years, until they separated in 2019. They had only two children. In this film there are twins, a girl away at college, Mary at home, and what seems to be a large number of children, when her former offspring are factored in.
This film stars Julianne Moore, who won an Oscar in 2014 for playing a woman afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease, “Still Alice..” She has appeared in 107 films. She has made many, many wonderful films; the subject matter of many is often racy (“Boogie Nights” comes to mind.) I felt sorry that she had to appear in this one, which, for me, fell flat.
Similarly, Oscar-winner (“The Black Swan”) Natalie Portman appears as an actress named Elizabeth Berry, a celebrity with a TV show about animals called “Nora’s Ark”, who has been hired to portray Julianne’s character of Gracie in the upcoming bio-pic. She wants to get close to the real Gracie. Gracie and Joe allow her to come to their home. (And what a home it is, for a couple with a wife who only bakes for others and a husband who appears to perhaps be an X-ray technician. How do they afford this elegant home in Savannah, Georgia? How are they going to pay for at least four kids in college simultaneously?)
The young man who portrays Julianne’s young husband (22 years younger in the real Letourneau case) is Charles Melton as Joe Yoo. He does what he can with this part, as do the two experienced actresses. Charles Melton is one of the few bright spots in the film, but he still provokes gales of laughter because the scripted things he is given to say are that bad.
From the moment we see a butterfly chrysalis onscreen (Joe is interested in helping re-populate the Monarch population) and the ponderous, schmaltzy music begins playing, you think, “What the f___?” Marcelo Zarvos wrote original music and adapted Michel LeGrand’s melodies from “The Go-Between.” The music is heavy-handed and melodramatic.
Later, in a café scene, we see one of Gracie’s children from her first marriage, Georgie (memorably played by Cory Michael Smith), singing. The lyrics “Oh, Baby, I love your ways” float over to us, before Georgie delivers the cringe-worthy line, “I’m a Phoenix rising from the ashes.” (Yikes! Who talks like that in real life?)
There are so many awkward, uncomfortable scenes that I hate to single out the back room of a pet shop, where the duo was supposedly caught in flagrante delecto, or the other questionable scenes, meant to be comic. Natalie Portman seemed to get more of the truly execrable scenes than Julianne, including one where she relives the storage room romance of the pet shop all by herself, writhing and moaning with wild bird noises in the background. And there’s the one where she faces the camera and has to deliver a bad monologue that was a letter Gracie wrote to Joe. There is also her inappropriate description of playing sex scenes, delivered to a high school class where Mary Atherton, Gracie’s daughter, is in the audience.
Nothing about the situation seemed “funny,” to me, especially since so many lives, including those of six children, were negatively impacted. There are actually two bad pet shop scenes, one involving a snake. Which is worse? You decide if you watch this on Netflix when it begins streaming on December 1st, or in a theater beginning November 17th.
One shot showed Joe looking through a wire fence at his graduating children. That one, with its symbolism, was interesting. But on the very day her children are graduating, we see Julianne Moore as Gracie, accompanied by two Russian wolfhounds, stalking the land while holding a rifle. (A WTF moment.) A fox is on one side of the field. Julianne and the fox exchange glances. Oh. My. God. (Just shoot me now, Julianne).
When Charles Melton asks his oldest son, Charlie Atherton-Yoo (Gabriel Chung), if he is sad that Charlie is soon going to be leaving for college, the young man says he is very happy to be leaving. [Can’t blame him there.]
The cinematography by Christopher Blauvelt (“Emma,” “Zodiac”) was good and the Savannah, Georgia area photographs beautifully. It is shot on 16-millimeter film. Haynes’ usual cinematographer is Ed Lachmann (“Far From Heaven,” 2002; “Carol,” 2015).
The opening scenes of the film seem to promote a picture of Gracie as loving and committed to her marriage to the much younger Joe. However, her abandoned son, Georgie (from her first marriage) tells Natalie Portman, “Lady, she’s messed up in the head.” He relates tales of early incest abuse by his mother’s older brothers, but we never know whether that is true or false.
Indeed, there is evidence that supports Gracie and Joe as loving parents, but the real Mary Kay Letourneau was diagnosed as bi-polar and essentially abandoned her husband four kids for a twelve-year-old. Not exactly comic fodder; who thought this would make for a good movie that is half comic and half serious?
GRACIE’S LESS MATERNAL MOMENTS
Mary Kay gifts her daughter who is going off to college with a scale. She implies to a younger sister Mary (Elizabeth Yu) that her arms are fat, as the daughter tries on dresses for graduation. Gracie also loses it over a canceled baking goods order. It seems that baking is what Gracie does well; Friends in the area order things from her out of good will. The comic/not that funny line is, “How many pineapple upside-down cakes can a family eat?”
It also brings up the valid question, “So, is the community generally supportive of Joe and Gracie, as with the ordering of baked goods, or does she receive more packages of canine feces than orders for baked goods?” It’s also valid to ask, “How do they afford this big house with the small pool and the ocean view and also sending multiple children off to college at the same time? Where is the money coming from?”
Early on, a neighbor tells Natalie Portman as Elizabeth to “be kind” in her portrayal of Gracie. The film doesn’t seem to have made up its mind about whether or not the mis-matched couple has really been accepted, since Elizabeth, upon arrival, brings a package she found outside the house containing dog feces, only to learn that it is a routine occurrence for such packages to be left there.
This didn’t seem all that humorous, or all that accepting or forgiving on the part of the community.
I felt embarrassed for two such fine actresses to be appearing in this movie. It has nothing to do with disapproval of the theme. One of Julianne Moore’s All Time Best roles was in “Boogie Nights,” a classic about the pornographic film industry.This film is not a classic and whoever had the idea to make it half-funny/half-serious should rethink that decision. The tone is all over the place. The only people who seemed to be enjoying it were mocking the many cringe-worthy scenes or statements.
The only way to think you haven’t wasted your time sitting through this is if you mock it. I didn’t want to mock it. I respect the actresses in the lead roles too much. I just wish they had had a better script or at least one that picked a consistent tone that came through clearly. Samy Burch and Alex Mechanik wrote the story and Samy Burch scripted. Shame on them
I was very disappointed by this movie. However, this line from the film applies, “Keep your expectations low and you’ll never be disappointed.”
Unfortunately for me, I had higher expectations for something that might give us a bit of an idea what the real life of Mary Kay Letourneau might have been like after crossing society’s boundaries in 1997. I just felt sorry that these two talented performers somehow ended up in this, after all their good work throughout the years. The film screened at the 59th Chicago International Film Festival on October 18, 2023.
The “best” part of the movie is the trailer. After that, it’s either laugh or cry.