Review of true scandalous story that happened in the 90s, ‘May December’

December 17, 2023 Mario Bautista 598 views

December1‘MAY December’ is a film inspired by the true story of Mary Kay Letourneau, a teacher, 34, in Washington State who had an affair with her 6th grade student, Vili Fualaau, 12, in 1997. She was arrested as a sex offender and pleaded guilty to a charge of child rape.

The sensational case was fodder for tabloids and she gave birth to their daughter during the trial. After completing a 3-month jail sentence, she was arrested again when caught by cops with Vili.

She is sent back to prison and delivered their second child. She was jailed from 1998 to 2004. Upon release, they got married in 2005 and lived together for 14 years.

In the movie, the story is set in 2015, 20 years after the case happened. Their names were changed. The woman is now Grace Atherton-Yoo, played by Julianne Moore, and her much younger husband is now Joe Yoo, played by Charles Melton (“Riverdale”). The boy in real life is black. In the movie, he becomes Asian. Melton really has a Korean mom and an American dad.

An actress, Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman), stays with their family in Savannah, Georgia to know Grace better as she will be portraying Grace in an indie movie. She comes just when the twin children of Grace and Joe, Mary and Charles, are about to graduate from high school then leave for college. They have an older daughter, Honor, who is in college.

We learn that Grace was 36 when she had sex with Joe, 13, a classmate of her son from her first marriage, Georgie, who’s now a band singer. In the course of her research for her role, Elizabeth interviews both Gracie and Joe. She assures them that their story will be portrayed honestly on screen.

They seem genuinely happy with each other but as Elizabeth slowly uncovers their layered relationship, we the viewers are also given the chance to see the depths and dynamics of their story. It appears that there is a lot of things left unsaid between them, with Joe obviously emotionally stunted. Elizabeth gets to meet people from their past and present who share with her their own feelings about the unusual relationship. In their talks, it’s apparent that Grace doesn’t feel she did anything wrong. She says that, at the time they met, Joe had more experience with women than she is with men, adding “I was very sheltered and he matured very fast.”

But as Tom (DW Moffet), the first husband of Grace would point out: “What would make a 36-year old woman have an affair with a 7th grader?” We’re afraid that question was never satisfyingly answered.

When Joe had a tearful confrontation with Grace about their relationship, he wondered if he was “too young” then. But Grace reminds him that it was he who seduced her and he was the one who is in control, which he never refuted.

What holds the movie together perfectly is the splendid performances of the three leads. Portman is the only one nominated as lead actor in the Golden Globes. Both Moore and Melton are nominated in the supporting categories. But as far as we’re concerned, all of them are leads.

Portman comes across as someone who is starting to become Grace. In a key scene, she goes to the pet store where Grace and Joe met and, in the stock room where they were caught fornicating, she starts simulating the sex act on her own. Near the end, she delivers a long aria where she verbalizes Grace’s letter to Joe and it’s quite chilling.

This is Moore’s fourth film with Todd Haynes after “Safe”, “Far From Heaven” and “Wonderstruck”. Haynes really brings out the best in Moore as she perfectly captures the intricacies of the character with her wide emotional range. She desperately dreams of leading a normal life with her much younger husband, but you can feel that she is quietly broken, like when someone cancelled all their orders of cakes from her.

The interaction between the two women is nothing short of electrifying, with Portman beginning to mimic the looks, voice, manners of Moore, as shown with the deft use of mirrors that Haynes borrowed from Ingmar Bergman films like “Persona” with Liv Ullman which is about the search for identity. This is clearly seen in that mirror scene where Moore applies make up on Portman which has an undercurrent of delicate tension.

But no matter how great the leading ladies are, it’s relative newbie Charles Melton who gives a star-making performance as Joe. The script delves more into his psyche and gives him scenes where he truly shines to show how damaged he is after forever living in the dark shadow of what happened to him and Grace.

He is obviously very conflicted as he claims to be faithful to Grace and yet he is flirting with a girl who rears endangered butterflies like he does. But his best scene is when his son, Charlie, joins him on their rooftop and they smoke weed.

He says he has never tried it before and when he does, he easily gets high, breaks down and ends up crying in his own son’s arms as he has never really processed the scandal that happened when he was just an adolescent. It’s an emotional and physical performance that shows how emotionally stunted he is.

One aspect of the movie that quickly grabbed our attention right from the start is the thrilling melodramatic piano-driven musical score which sounds so familiar. It turns out the scorer, Marcelo Zarvos, actually got it from Michel Legrand’s work in the 1971 British movie, “The Go Between”, which was used in so many soaps that time.