This article contains a few spoilers from “May December.”
One thing is true about the brazenness of tabloid TV, such as “Entertainment Tonight” and “The Insider,” during its heyday in the ’90s and early 2000s: It always showed something deeply disturbing and presented it as utterly banal and suitable for a general audience on a weekday. In May 2005, it was the wedding photography of Mary Kay Letourneau and Vili Fualaau.
If you are not familiar, Letourneau was a school teacher who started raping his student Fualaau when he was only 12 years old. Ten years – including her 7½ years imprisonment – and two children later, they were married. and “The Insider” sat down with the smiling couple for an interview that was very much about, of all things, love.
She was the 43-year-old white, giddy bride-to-be about to walk down the aisle again (she was previously married and had four children with her ex-husband when she met Fualaau). He was the visibly awkward then 22-year-old father of Samoan heritage who seemed marginally happy.
It was meant as normal. And to confirm it, millions of people watched, riveted.
We didn’t really know the inside of their relationship. We only knew what they shared in interviews (they gave many throughout their 14-year marriage), which were dominated by Letourneau.
But that annoying image of the two is deconstructed in “May December,” director Todd Haynes’ not-so-subtle nod to Letourneau and Fualaau’s relationship. Broadly, it explores the question: What does “normal” look like for a couple like them today, when time offers the ultimate clarity? And it challenges the audience to sit with it, as we are as interested as ever.
It also examines the weaponization of white female sexuality. Its object is Joe (“Riverdale” star Charles Melton), an Asian-American man who was molested as a child by Gracie (Julianne Moore), a disgraced white woman who is now his wife.
Further complicating the story, written by Samy Burch, is Elizabeth (Natalie Portman), the bewitched white actress who disrupts the couple’s lives when she visits them as she prepares to portray Gracie in a suitably clever film. In keeping with the bliss, Elizabeth has also set out to seduce the emotionally fragile Joe.
All of this provides a provocative look at oppression perpetrated by two white women: one, an ordinary homemaker, and the other, a glamorous celebrity. Both assume the same power and are portrayed by excellent actors who have each worked to circumvent their own objectification in Hollywood.
The actors’ reversal of that in these roles highlights an unsettling irony that may or may not be deliberate – and deftly so.
That said, “May December” is a deeply conscious film, filled with as much thought as it is scandal. But despite the element of scandal, as well as its cottony lens reminiscent of the delicate coating of 1967’s “Valley of the Dolls,” it’s not a cloying melodrama. But that look feels intended to show how cheap our own voyeurism is.
Through Elizabeth, Haynes seems to recognize our persistent, perverse fascination with the lives of people like Letourneau and Fualaau coming with no real concern for their well-being. It is also an uncomfortable drama that keenly observes the way in which white female sexuality threatens and acts out for the most vulnerable.
Even in moments when he has no dialogue, Melton is hard not to watch. When we meet Joe, he is a 36-year-old man who appears somewhat mechanical and childlike at this point in his and Gracie’s life together. After Elizabeth’s first visit, Gracie and Joe hold a cookout and he is in charge of the barbecue while the two women talk.
We get the sense that Joe may be interested in their discussion, but he’s also dedicated to the task that Gracie has given him. And when the pair share a moment to the side, what is universally understood as a loving gesture of someone putting their arm around their partner feels dutiful when Joe does it. As if he has been programmed – or groomed.
Joe’s condition comes into focus in a scene where he sits on the roof and smokes awkwardly, apparently for the first time with his much more developed son Charlie (Gabriel Chung), days before he leaves for college. And the father begins to break down in tears.
It’s hard to say for sure whether it’s the thought of missing his son, realizing he never had a youth that would likely have equipped him with the knowledge of at least how to roll a joint, or the awareness that he will soon be left alone with his internal conflicts. Or a combination of all these things.
But it’s a troubling, pivotal moment, punctuated only by Joe’s embarrassed laughter, and Gracie, as usual, bursts onto the scene to alert him to trivial matters concerning her. This is only reinforced later in the film when he tries to talk to Gracie about his concerns about how their relationship started.
Gracie seems puzzled by her husband’s words and falls back on a familiar manipulative tactic as she projects a false narrative—probably not for the first time—on him: “You seduced me.”
It’s a dizzying moment for Joe designed to also be unsettling for the audience to watch as Gracie beckons him to join her in bed – not to ease his worries, but to caress him as she strokes his arm about her underwear hips. She does all of this with such calculation, reminding the audience that she is still the predator in this relationship while soothing his manhood.
The film is filled with uncomfortable moments like these and two complicated, sharply defined female characters who claim to believe their bullshit. And painfully, Joe doesn’t know the difference either way.
Elizabeth realizes this as quickly as she sweeps in on the couple. She is clearly enthralled by what the couple have normalized. But more pointedly, the reality that Gracie was able to establish. And almost immediately Elizabeth wants to duplicate it.
A moment in the bathroom helps crystallize this as Elizabeth watches as Gracie puts on her makeup for a lovely dinner. It’s a complex scene that draws your attention to the idea of an actor merely studying his character as Elizabeth works more manically to embody the kind of dangerous power that Gracie naturally possesses.
It is a contemplation of the motivations of an actor’s process, worthy of scrutiny at times, as it certainly is with Elizabeth throughout the film, as well as what we can understand as female empowerment when it comes at the expense of another.
Joe flails as these two women serve him a twisted, “Single White Female”-esque narrative built on lies and manipulation. Despite what happens between Elizabeth and Joe, the ideas of truth and intent — something “May December” plays with a lot — are skewed toward the person in power. And Joe has none.
“This is what adults do,” Elizabeth tells Joe simply.
Long after the credits roll in “May December,” after Elizabeth gets what she needs for her low-but-sure-to-be-popular performance (we see a clip that confirms it), Gracie and Joe retreat to in their now quieter home behind the fence, Joe’s fate hangs in the mind.
It’s not just because the film never reaches a tidy conclusion about his character. That’s because, now that Haynes has guided us more intimately into the lives of people behind the headlines, we’re left with nagging questions that challenge what we hold dear: our entertainment, our source of empowerment, our security.
“May December” does not claim to have the answers. That’s what makes it so disturbing.
“May December” is in select theaters Friday and will stream on Netflix on December 1.