Todd Haynes (Carol) directs a drama inspired by the scandalous true story of Mary Kay Letourneau.
She was the American teacher who, in 1997, pleaded guilty to two counts of felony second-degree rape of a child, namely her sixth grade (12-year-old) student.
Jailed from 1998 to 2004, upon her release Letorneau married him.
May December’s construct is that 20 years after a similar couple’s notorious romance gripped the nation, a film is about to be made outlining what went down.
The star of that picture is a television actress named Elizabeth (Natalie Portman).
As part of her method acting, before filming starts Elizabeth reaches out to “the scarlet woman” involved, Gracie (Julianne Moore).
Elizabeth spends time with Gracie, her husband – who was the underage child she took advantage of two decades earlier – the family and others involved.
Elizabeth’s modus operandi is to really try to get to know Gracie and her mindset – what motivated her to do what she did and how Gracie feels about that now.
Elizabeth also wants to get a read on husband Joe Yoo’s (Charles Melton) state of mind and that of their children and Gracie’s children from a previous marriage.
What arises are questions of consent, manipulation and vulnerability.
There is a sinister edge to what we see, even two decades after the sensational goings on.
Gracie and Joe’s relationship will be tested anew and cracks opened up, as pressure is applied.
Elizabeth’s moral compass will also come under scrutiny.
Patience is rewarded in May December, as the screws are tightened by writer Samy Burch, who has done a fine job.
While nothing happens quickly, there is no let up to the heat that comes on.
The unease and distrust that Gracie has of Elizabeth’s motive for being at her home is immediately apparent. At various junctures thereafter, the pair bonds and disassociates.
All the while, Elizabeth is studying Gracie’s affectations, which she puts to good use in the final scene, that is when filming of the movie being made starts.
Portman is outstanding in a multi-layered performance, as she immerses herself in the role of Elizabeth. She is natural and credible.
Moore, too, excels. Often through her characterisation, she appears to be playing with us – the audience – in an endeavour to win our favour. But all too frequently chinks in Gracie’s armour appear.
That’s a deliberate choice by the writer to move us one way and then another.
For his part, Charles Melton is sensitive, but stoic as Joe Yoo.
Mercelo Zarvos’ compelling music bed ratchets up the tension in many scenes.
Director Haynes has a good command of the subject matter and milks the dichotomies to ensure impact.
I liked May December more and more the longer it went.
Rated MA, it scores an 8 out of 10.