May December loosely fictionalises the Mary Kay Letourneau-Vili Fualaau story for a reflection on our relationship with true crime, pitching the voyeurism it invites against the damage it causes.
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NEAR the end of May December, there’s a scene so tackily staged and so hammily acted, one might think it’s a porn parody. The scene takes place on the set of a movie, a pretty bad one by the looks of it, that re-sensationalises a decades-old tabloid scandal involving 36-year-old Gracie Atherton-Yoo and 13-year-old Joe Yoo, both of whom were caught having sex and would later go on to marry. Playing Gracie in this movie-within-a-movie is Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman), a TV star itching for prestige film credentials and potential awards glory. The director yells, “Action.” Elizabeth-as-Gracie is lying on a sofa in the back room of a pet shop, her cardigan slipping down one shoulder. Stroking a snake and gazing invitingly at her co-star playing Joe, she reassures him, “It’s okay to be scared.” As she hands him the snake, their hands intertwine. And…cut!
Not happy with the first take, Elizabeth begs the director for another. Then another. “It’s getting more real,” she insists. But we know otherwise. Seeing Elizabeth exaggerate Gracie’s lisp and strain her line readings in the re-enactment oxymoronically substantiates how convincing Portman is at playing an unconvincing actor. One actor’s incompetence is another’s competence. One person’s scandal is another’s story. One victim’s life is for the public: entertainment. As director Todd Haynes wrings the scene for every ounce of discomfort until we are all squirming in our seats, he holds up a mirror to our ghoulish obsession with scandals and prompts us to question our consumption of tragedy as content.
To make tragedy more content-ready, too often the spectacle is heightened, the truth embellished. May December turns a tabloid spectacle inside out to interrogate the truth. The screenplay by Samy Burch loosely fictionalises the Mary Kay Letourneau-Vili Fualaau story in an attempt to guide an artful path towards reflection on our relationship with true crime, playing the voyeurism it invites against the damage it causes. Through lingering close-ups, Haynes implicates the viewers in the invasion of victims’ privacy and exploitation of their trauma.
Before shooting begins, Elizabeth spends weeks researching the role. She travels down to Savannah, Georgia on a fact-finding mission to study Gracie (Moore) in close quarters. She shadows her subject, treating her like an object of curiosity, observing her posture and mannerisms, talking to family, friends and neighbours for clues to unlock her personality. Gracie, now pushing 60, and Joe, now in his mid-30s, seem to have built an idyllic suburban life. Their oldest Honor (Piper Curda), who was born while Gracie was serving a prison sentence for statutory rape, is already in college; their youngest, twins Charlie (Gabriel Chung) and Mary (Elizabeth Yu), are about to graduate high school.
Elizabeth’s presence, however, opens old wounds. Gracie and Joe find their picket-fenced domesticity under threat of crumbling from the pressure of emotions bottled up for too long. With kids flying the coop, the reality of an empty nest forces Joe to realise he never got to enjoy a normal adolescence. Gracie stole his one chance. Regret and longing for a do-over become visible when he joins his son Charles on the roof of their house and smokes a joint for the first time. “I can’t tell if we’re connecting, or if I’m creating a bad memory for you in real time, but I can’t help it,” Joe tells Charles, breaking down in tears.
If Joe is trapped in a state of arrested development, it is Gracie who keeps him trapped. She controls everyone around her. She body shames her daughter with backhanded compliments (“You’re so brave for showing your arms.”) and nags her calcium-deficient son to drink milk in the same motherly tone as she tells Joe off for drinking more than two beers at a party or getting into bed without showering. Despite being six-foot tall, he somehow seems to shrink in her presence. From time to time, when Gracie behaves like a needy child, sobbing at one point over a customer cancelling a cake order, it is up to Joe to provide her comfort.
At the start, we look at Gracie as Elizabeth does, from the curious perspective of an actor seeking to decode a real-life subject to be recoded as an on-screen character. The first time Elizabeth visits Gracie’s home, she finds a package at the front door. The package turns out to be a box of shit; but Gracie and Joe dispose of the box without a fuss, like it was junk mail. “We haven’t had one in a while,” says Gracie, urging Elizabeth to not be alarmed. Moore portrays a guarded character too eager to paint herself as the victim, too eager to recast her relationship with Joe as a star-crossed romance, too eager to present a facade of a normal suburban family. A contrapuntal piano score cues us to question what lies beneath the facade presented to us. Gracie calls her naivety a “gift”; but it is an avoidance strategy. If “she doesn’t seem to carry around any shame or guilt,” as Elizabeth tells her partner, it’s because her suburban community has been enabling her self-delusion. Friends and neighbours have helped her rebuild her life by buying cakes from her. If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to protect an abuser and play along like nothing untoward ever happened.
As a hobby, Joe raises monarch butterflies. Once the winged insect emerges from its chrysalis, he gently delivers them to the outside world. This motif reminds us of how Joe himself never received the same gentle nurturing, the same opportunity to mature at his own pace. Nonetheless, the key to his metamorphosis lies in breaking free from Gracie’s cocoon of denial. In the scene where Joe confronts Gracie about who initiated the relationship all those years ago in the pet store, Melton expresses the gawky softness of man stuck in an adolescent-adult limbo with his entire body, unhunching his shoulders, rubbing his hands, stammering his words. It is devastating to watch as the toll of repressing the pain of abuse for so long registers in his trembling voice. It is even more devastating to watch Gracie deny his truth. “You seduced me,” she repeats, insisting he was in charge. “But I was 13 years old,” he replies. Sometimes a search for shades of grey ends up overlooking what is written in black and white.
With Gracie proving more and more elusive as a subject, Elizabeth becomes less and less particular about verifiable facts. When Georgie (Cory Michael Smith), Gracie’s son from her first marriage, suggests his mother had been sexually abused by her older brothers as a child, Elizabeth is quick to believe Gracie may have been repeating the pattern of abuse, like it was the missing piece of the puzzle she needed to understand Gracie as a character, her naivety and her own arrested development. But where do the lies end and the truth begin? Where does the performance end and the person begin?
For the arrival of Elizabeth adds another layer to the extended performance that is Gracie’s daily life, desperate as she is for the actress — and the eventual moviegoing public — to see her as a complicated yet rootable figure. Both are often seen fine-tuning their performances in front of a mirror. One scene frames Elizabeth, notebook in hand, studying Gracie’s make-up routine, writing down the names of the lipstick and blush. At which point, Gracie offers to do Elizabeth’s makeup. Roles shift: Gracie now the interrogator; Elizabeth the subject. There is a strange intimacy. But there is also tension, revulsion, an unbridgeable gulf between the two. The more Elizabeth mirrors Gracie’s physicality, the more palpable the gulf becomes. How Gracie employs her lisp vs how Elizabeth emphasises it points to how the two seem to be operating on different registers. One puts on a performance every day like her life depended on it. The other is a mediocre actor resorting to mimicry.
Yet, Elizabeth holds onto a futile desire to inhabit the psyche of her character, losing herself in the process. At a high school Q&A, quizzed about shooting sex scenes, she admits to having lost sight of boundaries between performance and reality before. “Sometimes there’s real chemistry between two people, and you start feeling like it’s real,” she says, before wondering, “Am I pretending that I’m experiencing pleasure, or am I pretending that I’m not experiencing pleasure?” On a tour of the pet shop, Elizabeth masturbates in the stockroom where Gracie and Joe were caught having sex. On being sent audition tapes of young actors reading for the role of 13-year-old Joe, she rejects them all for not being “sexy enough.” All the while, she continues to flirt with Joe, as if seducing him like Gracie did will help her understand. Joe ultimately gives in. It is only after the two have sex that Joe realises Elizabeth seduced him out of a sickly intrigue. “This is just what grown-ups do,” she says. That she doesn’t see him as a grown-up is disturbing. That she sees his life as a mere story puts our own morbid fascination with such stories under scrutiny.