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To acquire wisdom, one must observe

‘May December’ has terrific acting but slow storytelling

In 1996, elementary school teacher Mary Kay Letourneau was caught having a sexual relationship with her 12 year old student Vili Fualaau. After Letourneau served her prison sentence, and Fualaau became an adult, the two got married and raised their two daughters together. I do not think I have to explain why this whole situation is disgusting. This story shocked society and left people with the question of how and why this happened. While we may never get the full answers, “May December” tries to get close. The film is not a direct retelling of their story, as the characters and stories in this film are fictional, but there was heavy inspiration taken from the real-life Letourneau incident. “May December” tries to take a look at some possible motivations, as well as how this could leave impacts on people’s lives. Not just the lives of the couple, but the lives of people around them. The film is not as serious as one might expect with the topic at hand, but it is still sensitive to the important issues. It is a unique take on the story that does not have a lot of action, but is still thought-provoking. Released on Netflix on December 1, “May December” explores the capability of a predator.

Gracie Atherton (Julianne Moore) was a 36 year old working at a pet store when she started having sexual relations with Joe Yoo (Charles Melton), her 13 year old coworker and schoolmate of her son. The two later got married and are now raising three children together. A little over twenty years after the initial event, a movie about their relationship begins production. Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman), a moderately successful actress, is cast to play Gracie in this movie. In order to prepare for her role, Elizabeth goes to Gracie and Joe’s house to learn more about them, right as their younger children are graduating high school. Gracie puts on a warm and welcoming exterior in front of Elizabeth, but something seems off. Elizabeth starts asking around about their relationship, and she gets a variety of responses and summaries of the event. However, she might be going too deep if she wants to remain stable. Meanwhile, Elizabeth’s exploration into everything is making Joe reconsider everything that he has known. Doubts start to pop up in his mind. Gracie is working hard to make sure everything looks perfect, despite the serious mental health problems she may have. Over the course of Elizabeth’s stay, everyone’s lives are altered and no one knows if they can trust anyone, including themselves.

The main characters of this film do not seem to be grounded in reality. Nevertheless, their portrayers help them seem real. It is never a surprise when Portman turns in a stellar acting performance. When the film began, it appeared that Elizabeth would be the standard straight man character, an observer to the strange situation happening around her. While that is true for a lot of the film, it becomes clear that she is not totally okay as she acts on the edge of sanity. It is a character that demonstrates some problems with method acting. Portman was able to make the unraveling of Elizabeth feel real, even through her odd character choices. Similarly, Moore delivers an absolutely entertaining performance of the unhinged Gracie. She pulls off the Gracie in public that tries to keep up appearances, as well as the Gracie in private that displays serious psychological issues. Moore is able to sell a character that committed a crime, yet does not feel any guilt or remorse. Gracie is the most expressive and flamboyant part of the film, and Moore displayed the passion required for this performance. Moore and Portman are veteran actresses that moviegoers always have high hopes for on screen. While the actresses certainly met those expectations, the surprise brilliance of Melton is what stands out. Joe is a quiet character that seemed comfortable with his life at first but is clearly troubled. Even though he is now in his thirties, on the inside he is a child that never got to grow up. Melton makes sure that you pay attention to this character. Joe becomes more emotional as the film goes on, and he is the character you walk away feeling bad for. Melton clearly has a big career ahead of him after pulling off a complex part like this one. While the achievement of the film’s story can be debated, there is no denying that the film was a masterclass in acting.

While “May December” has an interesting story to tell, there could have been a better structure overall. For instance, the film would have been a lot stronger with less set-up. Naturally, set-up is important to a film in order to arrange a climax and an impactful ending. Unfortunately, when there is too much set-up, it can feel like there are long instances of nothing happening. A lot of the scenes with Elizabeth trying to explore Gracie and Joe’s lives felt repetitive, like she was going in circles. It did not appear like she was really getting anywhere until later on in the film. The middle portion of “May December” felt flat, with minor instances of excitement through unraveling the relationship. The film got the most exciting towards the end. In addition, “May December” should have focused less on Elizabeth and more on Gracie and Joe. I applaud the new perspective that “May December” decided to take, as it could have just been the predictable outlook into an inappropriate relationship. In many ways, that perspective paid off, as it helped provide an outsider look into what was happening so that we could see what this couple was like through different viewpoints. Nevertheless, that does not mean Elizabeth should have been the main character.  I found that the scenes that focused on Joe were the best scenes of the film, as he went through the most development in this story. I felt no attachment to her, and scenes with her kind of dragged on. As mentioned before, Portman did a great job, but that was not enough. There needed to be more action and intrigue in this film in order for this film to stay interesting. Otherwise, it may feel like everything blends together.

“May December” could have easily been a lot more serious and straightforward. After all, it is a story about a groomer and her victim. Nonetheless, director Todd Haynes chose to frame this tone in a somewhat comedic light. To be clear, the director was sensitive to the situation at hand, but the film was not fully serious. It’s not a screwball comedy with every line being a knee-slapping joke. However, some of the behaviors of the characters and the underlying tone leads to a film that is a little melodramatic. The people in “May December” acted in ways that were unlike people you would meet in real life, and the film leans into that. Instead of going completely straight, it tries to be exaggerated to show the insanity of a situation. I liked this decision, as it showed the quiet chaos of everyone’s situations. They may not see their world as comedic, but the direction of the film puts the oddness on full display. It is almost like a well-made soap opera, which is made clear in the music. There was a lot of music in the score that was booming and sounded like something that would normally be used to elicit gasps. The music would specifically be used after big moments and revelations. This choice worked in small doses, and it helped create a unique insight into the scenes, that they were not supposed to feel normal. However, as ”May December” went on, the music got to be a bit much, and some of that music could be cut back. The music sometimes can take you out of the moment. I think the comedic direction was nice, as it made the film one of a kind. However, “May December” could have done more to capture the viewers while still keeping the desired mood.

The topics explored in “May December” are not the easiest ones to process, nor are they the easiest ones to tell. I would say that Haynes did a decent job with what was at hand. While the film could have used a lot more energy, the angle was one of a kind and showed that the usual patterns for serious topics are not necessary. The film did not have to be an after school special, as most people understand the problem with grooming. “May December” could have also just told the actual story of Letourneau and Fualaau, but the film wanted the freedom to get creative, which I applaud. Did “May December” keep me interested through every moment? It did not, as a lot of the middle blurred together for me and some parts felt a little pointless. Did I like where this film ended up? I would say yes to that question. There was not some huge plot twist in the end, nor did every loose end get fully tied up. That being said, it was a great destination and, without giving spoilers, showed why this story matters. There were ups and downs, but I would say I had a fair viewing experience and I do not regret watching the film. If you want to see a new approach to the adult grooming a child relationship, or you want to see some dramatic moments mixed with strong performances, watch “May December” today.

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