The many layers of May December

A scene from the movie May December shows a woman and a man, separated by several feet, walking through a home in front of large glass windows, each carrying a plant.
Natalie Portman and Charles Melton in May December. | Courtesy of Netflix

May December isn’t camp. So what is it?

In the opening moments of Todd Haynes’s May December, scandalous tabloid subject-turned-homemaker Gracie (Julianne Moore) opens a refrigerator, dramatically accompanied by a sudden piano sting and an ominous camera zoom.

The twist? They might not have enough hot dogs for their upcoming cookout.

If that strikes you as funny, you’re not alone. This is a film that reportedly had audiences laughing out loud during its debut, a story the New York Times called “the most fun film” at Cannes 2023. And yet, it’s also a film based on the horrifying real-life story of a sexual predator and her child victim — and since, as we recently learned, the production didn’t consult the victim, Vili Fualaau, there are inevitable gaps between fiction and real life that make it a complicated, difficult film to interpret.

Viewers have been debating since its December 1 platform release. Is it camp? Is it supposed to be funny? Is Natalie Portman a bad actor or is she just very good at playing a bad one?

These are all interesting questions to consider, but they arguably obscure the biggest question of all: What does it mean that audiences are laughing at a story as dark as this one — and does that say more about the film or its viewers? Is May December critiquing the exploitative nature of media, or is it an example of the very thing it seeks to deconstruct?

[Note: This review contains spoilers.]

May December adapts a real-life tabloid scandal

May December fictionalizes the story of Mary Kay Letourneau and Vili Fualaau. The pair met when she was a teacher and he was in second grade. After years of plying Fualaau with gifts and special attention, Letourneau became pregnant by Fualaau when he was just 13. Convicted of rape, she was released after just three months but immediately violated parole to become pregnant with Fualaau’s second child. In 2005, after serving a seven-year sentence during which she continued her relationship with Fualaau, Letourneau married him. The couple separated in 2019, shortly before Letourneau’s death from cancer.

This crime would be properly viewed today as that of a child predator who successfully spent years grooming her target. In the ’90s, however, the media framed it as a star-crossed love story, allowing Letourneau to direct the narrative, so much so that even Fualaau’s own family defended her, insisting the pair were in love and that Fualaau was “extremely mature” for his age.

The film picks up where our cultural memory leaves off. The fictional Gracie and her victim, Joe Yoo (Charles Melton), have been together 24 years. Still living in Savannah, Georgia, where the scandal occurred, they’re preparing for the graduation day of their younger daughter and son. Into this dynamic saunters a fictional celebrity, Elizabeth (Natalie Portman). But Elizabeth, who’s trying to get to know Gracie in order to play her for an upcoming film adaptation, isn’t an objective observer.

Haynes’s directorial choices make it extremely clear that this relationship was far from rosy, indicting not just Letourneau but the onlookers, too — the tabloid media who hyped the story as a romance, the Hollywood machine that made it the stuff of Lifetime movie lore, and the real-life audiences who ate it up. To do that, he utilizes a tonal approach that suggests his three main characters are in three different movies within the movie, each one clashing with the other.

May December utilizes clashing perspectives to keep us discomfited

Gracie is inside a movie about star-crossed soulmates who find each other against all odds — a movie where she is the hero and the whole world is rooting for her. The hot dog scene is our first tell that Gracie’s world is a delusion. It’s the kind of overly dramatic stinger we might find in a ’90s made-for-TV movie, applied to something vapid. In Gracie’s narcissistic point of view, however, little things become magnified. Today, her tightly controlled world could be disrupted by missing hot dogs; tomorrow, it could be something much worse.

Her lawyer reveals to Elizabeth at one point that Gracie’s friends are all Norma Desmonding her — humoring her attempts to set herself up as a baker by ordering cakes they don’t eat, just to give her something to do. Gracie clings to this vision of herself; the smallest disturbance leaves her sobbing, desperate for comfort from Joe. She relies on him for everything, and he shoulders everything from emotional support to parenting duties.

Yet Joe, much like Fualaau toward the end of his relationship with Letourneau, undergoes an awakening during the film. Over a series of heartbreaking moments beautifully acted by Melton, we see him slowly come to know what the rest of us already do: He was a victim, not a willing participant, in the “love story” planned out for him by Letourneau. In one devastating scene, he watches his son smoke a joint with a look of palpable yearning, reminding viewers that he never got the chance to do something so mundane as a teen because he was robbed of a normal adolescence.

Melton and Portman walk outside with two dogs.
François Duhamel/Courtesy of Netflix
Charles Melton and Natalie Portman in May December.

Of our three different narratives, only Joe’s is an accurate reflection of reality. That reality is full of troubling conflict; Joe’s devastation at his lost childhood mixes with pride in and love for his kids. He moves through the film with quiet care for his children, for Gracie, for the butterflies he’s been nursing, helping protect them until they, like his own children, can leave their cocoons and fly away.

As he begins to understand his situation, Joe seeks help and understanding from Elizabeth; later, he unsuccessfully pleads for help from Gracie herself. But any hope that Elizabeth can be a moral arbiter here quickly dies. Instead, within the tableau of perspectives on Gracie’s crime, she represents the tabloid view, one that sees the “May-December romance” as not only shocking but titillating — ultimately erotic rather than dangerous. She reminds us throughout that in reality, Vili Fualaau was a victim, not just of Letourneau, but of a media machine and a society that was quick to sexualize him.

Once we understand this, Portman’s performance becomes anything but phoned-in. She becomes the key to unlocking the whole movie.

Portman’s performance is crucial to understanding Haynes’s project

If this were a typical cautionary tale, Portman’s character would be the vehicle for the audience’s moral outrage — the character we’re allowed to relate to and empathize with who serves as our tour guide through the distorted landscape of Gracie and Joe’s relationship.

But Elizabeth winds up aiding and abetting the distortion. Portman plays her like an ingenue, a starlet who’s still in her starlet mode, even though in the world of the film, she’s an industry veteran of 36 — the same age Gracie was when her relationship with Joe came to light.

Over the course of the film, she falls for the fantasy of becoming Gracie. She smiles flirtatiously at teen boys. She gets lost in a wildly inappropriate description of filming sex to a group of high schoolers. Later, she pantomimes sex at the literal scene of the crime — in the pet shop stockroom where Gracie and Joe were ultimately caught.

In one charged scene, she allows Gracie to do her makeup and reacts to their intimacy with a homoerotic mix of repulsion and elation. Ultimately, she has sex with Joe — then, finally, fully transforms into the older seductress by performing one of Gracie’s love letters as a monologue.

Moore helps Portman stir while they are baking in the kitchen.
Courtesy of Netflix
Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman serving homoerotic vibes (but don’t call it camp!).

The more she is drawn into this version of the story, the more callous Elizabeth becomes. After viewing footage of 13-year-olds auditioning for the role of Joe in the movie she’s in, she complains to the director that they aren’t “sexy enough.” When Joe angrily insists to her that his life isn’t a story, she says calmly, “There’s no need to get so worked up about it” — exactly the kind of thing Gracie herself might say. She becomes fully swept up in a story that’s all about her and her repressed sexual desires coming to the fore.

The difficulty audiences have had in parsing what Portman is doing reveals just how smart her performance is: She’s so believable that not everyone believes she’s acting. (Portman first championed the script to Haynes, so it’s likely that she was thinking about the layered dynamics at play here long before anyone else.)

Our frustrated expectations of Portman’s role are also tied to confusion over the film itself. With two divas each getting carried away with the idea of themselves as the hero of a fantastical (but in fact disintegrating) love story, it’s easy to see how claims have arisen that May December is a work of camp. It doesn’t help that Haynes has a penchant for lush, indulgent dramas (Velvet Goldmine, Carol) that sometimes nudge the campy line between melodrama and farce.

So, to really understand May December, we have to understand the ways in which it could be camp — but ultimately isn’t.

May December isn’t camp, but thinking about it through the lens of camp is useful

Camp is what happens when societal expectations collide with a character or a persona who can’t perform those expectations convincingly. Instead, their attempt at performance unwittingly reveals and magnifies the artifice of those expectations. Camp is closely related to queer identity and performance, which expose the artifice of heteronormativity. Gender and sexual deviance of all kinds are likewise camp-adjacent because they often reveal how absurd the mechanics of repression can be.

In Gracie’s case, she is a true sexual deviant who’s deeply invested in adhering to societal rules. They help validate her version of the narrative. But because she’s a true deviant, ultimately unable to perform normative social behavior, she breaks the illusion of normalcy in ways that border on hysterical.

A perfect example of this is the moment Gracie gushes to Elizabeth about a card Joe gave her years earlier, featuring a banal love note. Then she casually adds that the card was a classroom assignment, reminding Elizabeth and the audience that Joe was a seventh grader. It’s a hilarious, deeply disturbing moment. These two emotions converging is the essence of camp.

For something to truly be camp, however, its presentation has to align with the destabilizing worldview. If the subject, the camera, or the direction is too knowing, the effect can become satirical, and in some cases cringe. (This is also, incidentally, why the Met Gala “camp” theme was a disaster; you can’t plan camp.) But Haynes never allows the artificial, fantasist narratives of Gracie and Elizabeth to overshadow the anguish Melton conveys. As Elizabeth becomes more entranced by Gracie’s story, her performance as Gracie becomes more campy and less effective. Meanwhile, Gracie’s performance of the role of perfect housewife fails to convince anyone but herself.

When Joe finally confronts Gracie about the truth of their lives together, the scene is anything but camp. It’s a deeply troubling reminder that society gave its stamp of approval to a relationship that left him with lifelong trauma. Adding to the discomfort of this moment is that screenwriter Samy Burch uses dialogue from a jaw-dropping real-life 2018 interview with Australian journalist Matt Doran. In the segment, the adult Letourneau and Fualaau have a tense exchange in which she tells him repeatedly, in front of a shocked Doran, that he was “the boss” in their relationship.

Outside of the film, it’s easy to be aghast by this clip. Inside of the film, this moment shatters the idea of “younger boy pursuing an older woman” as a legitimate narrative. “You seduced me,” Gracie tells Joe with complete confidence. It’s terrifying how effortless Moore makes playing a fictional Letourneau seem.

But the film isn’t really that interested in condemning Gracie — what would be the point? Instead, its sharpest castigation rests with Elizabeth. In a single role, she is able to embody the amoral self-interest of the tabloids, Hollywood, the public who consumed the story as entertainment, and everyone around Fualaau who left him to his fate.

We might ask whether Haynes himself is part of that web of exploitation — after all, isn’t May December a coy treatment of a scandal?

Yes and no. One function of the film’s funnier moments is to allow the audience its share of nervous laughter, an exhalation amid our escalating discomfort. If May December were less self-aware, it might belong in the category of camp or failed melodrama; if it were less earnest, it might earn the title of tongue-in-cheek satire. But ultimately, the movie’s discordant aesthetic isn’t coy. It’s about revealing the nightmarish circus that Joe has survived with quiet resilience.

And it’s about us: The circus attendees, arriving with popcorn — prepared to laugh, when perhaps we should be in mourning.

Update, January 5, 2024: This story, originally published December 9, 2023, has been updated to include a media statement on the movie from Vili Fualaau.

By: Aja Romano
Title: The many layers of May December
Sourced From:
Published Date: Fri, 05 Jan 2024 15:40:35 +0000

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I'm a writer for lifestyle publications, and when I'm not crafting stories, you'll find me cherishing moments with my family, including my lovely daughter. My heart also belongs to my pets—Sushi, Snowy, Belle, and Pepper. Besides writing, I enjoy watching movies and exploring new places through travel.