'May December' is a slippery, superbly acted tour de force

The monarch butterflies we see in the opening moments of “May December,” like everything else in Todd Haynes’ dark and disquietingly funny new movie, invite more than one interpretation. Raised in a small enclosure, at least during their larval stage, they offer a ready metaphor for entrapment, inhabiting a hothouse environment that exists for the stimulation of anyone who peers inside. But they are also reminders of an insect life cycle with its own biological cadence, governed by strictly timed rituals of growth, mating and reproduction that the rest of us don't always have to follow.

That certainly includes the insects’ 36-year-old owner, Joe Yoo (Charles Melton), and his 59-year-old wife, Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore), who have three college-age kids and live in Savannah, Ga. Time has largely dulled the air of moral outrage and salacious gossip that once swirled around the couple, whose relationship began when Joe was barely a teenager. What happened next — a headline-grabbing scandal, a child-rape trial, a baby born in prison — cleaves in broad outline to the case of Mary Kay Letourneau, a Washington schoolteacher who, in 1997, was convicted of sexually abusing her sixth-grade student Vili Fualaau. Years later, after Letourneau’s release, the two wed and stayed married until their separation 14 years later; Letourneau died of cancer in 2020.

Although Samy Burch’s sharply layered script (drawn from a story she co-wrote with Alex Mechanik) never directly invokes Letourneau and Fualaau, it brings us into uncomfortable intimacy with two characters whose real-life inspiration is never in doubt. The unease springs, in part, from the patina of middle-class normalcy that clings to Gracie and Joe from the moment we first see them preparing for a backyard BBQ. As local kids laugh and play and hot dogs sizzle on the grill, the Yoos appear to have settled into the affection and occasional tedium of a happy marriage. Still, given the boxes of feces that sometimes land on their doorstep, their convention-defying union still has the power to provoke public loathing and fascination two decades later.

The arrival of Elizabeth Berry (a superb Natalie Portman), a well-known TV actor eyeing a career bump, offers still more proof of the couple's lasting notoriety. Elizabeth is set to play Gracie in an independent movie, and the Yoos, who can only hope for a sympathetic depiction, have agreed to let her spend a few days in their company. (The terms of their arrangement, including any financial compensation, are never made clear.)

For a movie that’s very much about different shades of transgression, Elizabeth goes about her research with a blithe indifference to boundaries. As she makes her politely smiling, stealthily probing way into Gracie and Joe’s lives, dropping platitudes about making them “feel seen and known,” her own story threatens to eclipse the one she’s ostensibly committed to telling.

Right from the start, then, “May December” offers itself up as a sly, self-aware critique of the tawdry entertainment it might outwardly appear to be. Less a movie about a scandal than a movie about a movie about a scandal, it seeks to interrogate and even subvert its own promise of ripped-from-the-tabloids titillation, even as it challenges the predilections of an audience that might seek out such a movie. (Speaking of which: After this limited release, it begins streaming Dec. 1 on Netflix, where it will share digital shelf space with any number of nakedly exploitative, true-crime-inspired titles.) It exists, in short, at a familiar thematic juncture for Haynes, where drama blurs into deconstruction, melodrama hovers between realism and camp, and form holds up a drolly warped mirror to content.

Haynes signals his playfulness when he punctuates an early, funny moment with an overwrought musical flourish, as if he were satirizing the tepid soap opera that Elizabeth’s film project is destined to become. (Elsewhere, the stabbing, histrionic flurries of Marcelo Zarvos’ music offer a lush reworking of Michel Legrand’s score from the 1971 romantic drama “The Go-Between.”) It's a disarming touch and a generous invitation to laugh, but it’s also wholly devoid of scorn, which isn’t surprising from a filmmaker who has always seemed temperamentally incapable of condescension. Haynes may habitually build a wry intellectual distance into his movies, but here he bridges that distance with gusts of comedy, torrents of feeling and a love of movies that is by turns encyclopedic, voracious, infectious and egalitarian. Again and again, his cinephile allusions collapse easy distinctions between high and low, trash and art.

And so as Elizabeth gets to know Gracie over a few afternoons of baking, shopping and flower arranging, their tetchy, tentative rapport evokes the dreamy, identity-blurring intimacy of Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona” and David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive.” (A shot of Portman and Moore side-by-side, composed by cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt, makes the references hauntingly explicit.) And it’s hard to watch Moore here without thinking of the intensely vulnerable housewives she played in Haynes’ “Safe” and “Far From Heaven” (and also, perhaps, her career-launching work on “As the World Turns”).

Those earlier characters were victims of their surroundings, suffocated by era-specific forms of societal malaise. Gracie, by contrast, projects a proud, unapologetic defiance, something evident in both her childlike lisp (inspired by Letourneau herself) and the unmistakable edge of steel in her voice. Notably, she participates in Elizabeth’s research but refuses to play her game; there’s no performative introspection here, no moral hand-wringing over her past misdeeds. Hard as it may be for others to believe, Gracie suggests, she, Joe and the kids are a loving, happy and remarkably normal family.

"May December" doesn’t entirely contradict this notion so much as complicate it. Some of its most revealing if underplayed moments involve Gracie and Joe’s kids, Mary (Elizabeth Yu), Charlie (Gabriel Chung) and Honor (Piper Curda), who seem upbeat and well adjusted, but also more perceptive than they let on. You can’t help but notice how they gravitate toward Joe, who inevitably feels and certainly looks more like a big brother than a father to three young adults. There is love in the Yoo household, but there is also a terrible loneliness and a sense of denial. We see it when Joe quietly tends to his bugs and flirts with a mystery texter, or when Gracie privately disintegrates (and reminds us that Moore is one of the screen’s all-time great criers).

If Gracie is giving her own performance, then so of course is Elizabeth, who hides her calculation behind movie-star sunglasses and a pose of artistic curiosity and investigative rigor. You might buy that pose at first, since Portman, who’s often at her best when she embraces outright artifice (“Black Swan,” “Vox Lux”), plays this outsider with such insidious subtlety. Elizabeth seems warm, unassuming and empathetic when she sits down with Gracie’s ex-husband (D.W. Moffett) and, later, their son (an arresting Cory Michael Smith), questioning them about the years-ago scandal and the toll it took on their family. But in time, Portman will reveal Elizabeth’s own predatory ambition, her fish-out-of-water cluelessness and her indifference to the consequences of her actions.

Read more: Todd Haynes on his new 'May December,' a 'corrupt, twisted kind of fairy tale'

Haynes clearly loves actors, but he doesn’t shy away from how monstrous they can be in the ostensible pursuit of their art. That callousness comes through in a brilliantly funny-queasy sequence in which Elizabeth, visiting a high school class, ends up talking at inappropriate length about acting in sex scenes. Her monologue, one of two in the movie, leaves us both appalled and mesmerized. It also foreshadows what’s to come: “It’s getting real,” Elizabeth murmurs after shooting a racy scene in her (hilarious-looking) movie, unwittingly echoing a key line from “Mulholland Drive" (“Don’t play it for real until it gets real”).

But the most real person here — the most guileless, the one whose pain feels most nakedly acute — is Joe, whom Melton plays as someone mired in a kind of suspended adolescence, a midlife crisis that’s come a decade or two too soon. Melton’s casting offers its own subliminal commentary on the power dynamics at play: Best known for “Riverdale,” he’s the youngest and least established of the three principal actors, and might initially seem the most overmatched. But that’s exactly why Joe emerges as the movie’s revelation. To say that he feels “seen and known,” per Portman's Elizabeth, by the end would be a stretch. But it’s to the credit of this movie, shrewd and sardonic before it turns piercingly sad, that we see him more clearly than Gracie or Elizabeth possibly can.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.