Film Society x The Student: “May December”

Diego Duckenfield-Lopez ’24 reviews Todd Haynes’s latest film, “May December,” focusing on its exploration of cycles of abuse.

Film Society x The Student: “May December”
Amherst Cinema is now showing “May December,” a film inspired by the true story of Mary Kay Letourneau and Vili Fualaau. Photo courtesy of

“May December” is Todd Haynes’ latest film in a career that spans four decades. His 1991 feature debut, “Poison,” is considered one of the first works of the movement known as “new queer cinema.” Since then, Haynes has consistently made films that range from homages to 1950s melodramas to a documentary about the Velvet Underground.

Haynes stands out among contemporary directors in his almost academic approach to filmmaking. He has become a darling among film aficionados and academics who admire his deep knowledge of film history, which helps him make films that are both familiar and wholly original.

“May December” is no different. This film’s most obvious influence is Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona” (1966), a film about a nurse who takes care of a famous actress who has gone mute and starts losing the ability to distinguish between her own identity and her patient’s. “May December” revisits this dynamic: The film shows a young actress who visits and studies a woman who she plans to play in a movie about a nearly two-decade-old scandal involving the woman. The issue is that in many ways the scandal is still not entirely in the past and ripples through her family’s dynamics.

Haynes reunites with his long-time collaborator Julianne Moore in this film. In their first collaboration, “Safe,” Moore plays a housewife who falls ill with a mysterious illness that develops for unclear reasons but seems to stem from the boredom and loneliness of her domestic life.

In “May December”’s loose adaptation of the real-life story of Mary Kay Letourneau and Vili Fualaau, Moore plays a similarly enigmatic housewife; this time, one whose life is far from boring. About two decades earlier, she had been arrested for having an ”affair” with a 13-year-old who is now her husband, Joe (Charles Melton). They have three children together, one in college and two twins who are about to graduate from high school. This is when Elizabeth (Natalie Portman), a young actress, visits this family to gain a deeper understanding of Gracie.

We learn little about the scandal other than the basic details. The events of scandal like this would make excellent fodder for a psychological thriller/melodrama about the dissolution of a family, yet Haynes chooses to set the film when it seems like all the dust has settled from the initial fallout. Gracie insists that she never dwells on the past, and it seems like Joe doesn’t either, but what becomes apparent is that the reason they don’t dwell in the past is because they have never addressed it.

“May December” is a frustrating film. We watch Elizabeth relentlessly pursue answers to the motivations behind Gracie’s actions and end up with more questions. Elizabeth’s presence threatens the family’s stability as Gracie and Joe are forced to face the buried emotions exhumed by Elizabeth’s prodding. In a family so concerned with preserving a pristine public image in light of the tabloid fiasco from two decades before, anything less than perfect is unacceptable, and it seems like anything could be the final nail in the coffin. Gracie has an existential crisis when one of the few customers of her cake business cancels their order. Joe similarly doubts his sanity in front of his son in a moment of clarity where he comes to terms with his emotional stuntedness. The family always seems on the verge of bursting at the seams but somehow remains intact, refusing to give us the satisfaction of a reckoning for Gracie’s despicable behavior. There is no catharsis — we have no choice but to accept the events for what they are.

The film’s refusal to pass moral judgment makes for an unsettling viewing experience. Gracie seems to be willfully unaware of the gravity of her actions. We expect Elizabeth to become appalled in response to this indifference but instead she seems drawn to it. She insists on finding humanity within Gracie but is constantly confronted with the possibility that there is nothing beneath the surface; that Gracie is the person the tabloids say she is. She perfects her imitation of Gracie in the hopes that through acting she can resolve the cognitive dissonance in Gracie’s head and the one in her own as she obsessively observes Gracie.

However, the film’s most devastating character is Joe. Played brilliantly by Charles Melton, he is the only sympathetic character among the main trio. Melton brings incredible nuance to the character, making him believable as a man who in many ways has not been allowed to grow up and is essentially a child playing the role of middle-aged dad. He looks for friendship and love outside of his family life, but he has become so defined by his relationship with Gracie that he cannot fathom his identity outside of it and therefore cannot fathom what it feels like to truly be loved.

Nearly his whole life has been defined by the stories that have been told about him, whether in the tabloids or by those closest to him. He hopes that Elizabeth’s retelling of the narrative will resolve the warring thoughts in his head. He is stuck between the story Gracie tells, in which they are star-crossed lovers who are victims in a society that will not accept their “genuine” love, and the story he reads in the tabloids where he is the victim of an abuser.

The story Gracie weaves dominates Joe’s reality to the point that it is nearly impossible for him to see past it. Elizabeth inadvertently sides with Gracie in her quest to depict the supposedly misunderstood humanity under Gracie’s surface. Like Gracie, she is willfully ignorant and refuses to acknowledge her contribution to the cycle of abuse through the retelling of this dangerous narrative. The audience begins to understand: Some stories are better left untold.