May December

Meet the lady who slept with a teenager, and the actress set to play her.

I didn’t know what to expect before I watched “May December.” I knew it was directed by Todd Haynes and his two leads are Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore. So, it’s sure to be another profound entry in the director’s filmography. But I didn’t know what I was in for.

Long after my viewing, I did a little research on its subject. Mary Kay Letourneau was a teacher, who had an affair with her 12-year-old student Vili Fualaau, and was charged with stationary rape. She was given a 3-month prison sentence, but when the police found her in a car with Fualaau, she was a given a 7 and a half year sentence, from 1998 to 2004. During their affair and her sentences, the young man conceived two daughters (one in 1997 and the other in 1998). And in 2005, a year after she was released and after he persuaded the court to reverse the no-contact order against her, they were married. These two filed for separation in the end. The young man eventually saw that their relationship was unhealthily, while his older wife passed away from colorectal cancer.

I can’t say I got the whole story, which made headlines, but I can say it is pretty shocking, and a lot for me to digest.

“May December” embellishes that story by making her a pet-store worker and him just an adolescent, and their fling in the store is when things spin out of control for them. The Letourneau character is renamed Gracie Artherton-Yoo (Moore), while the Fualaau is renamed Joe Yoo (Charles Melton). They have one daughter, and a pair of fraternal twins, who are both set to graduate from high school and head off to college. They all live in a nice house in Savannah, Georgia, where everything seems right with the world. But it isn’t all that romantic.

Portman co-produces and co-stars as actress Elizabeth Berry, who visits the family to do some research on Gracie, whom she is supposed to portray in her next movie. She asks around about the other people in Gracie’s life, and even recreates her passionate moments with Joe. And she’s poised to transcend into the real life character.

I was sitting next to some girls at the Chicago Film Festival, who were telling her not to do what she’s thinking at the moment. And I was sitting in a big crowd of laughs, which benefit the viewing experience of what goes down in the screenplay and how it chooses to embellish the real-life story. Different names, altered situations, and it’s all directed with complexity by Haynes. He’s a filmmaker, who knows vivid characters and the performances to ignite them on the screen.

And don’t think I’m distinguishing myself from the audience, because I was laughing and gasping. I’m pretty sure the IMDb genre should also label it a comedy, if we’re getting as much laughs as we are getting pathos. But then again, I don’t think the movie itself was supposed to inform us of that. We’re supposed to acknowledge that this is a drama inspired by a real-life story about an age difference much more questionable than Elvis’s relationship with Priscilla (Sofia Coppola’s film version “Priscilla” is still in theaters).

Gracie and Joe’s marriage becomes threatened by Elizabeth’s cross examination of their lives, and how Joe is more conscious about his past than Gracie is. Within the pathos, there’s a question of choices and outcomes, spliced with the pure emotions of what is considered to be a toxic relationship. Was it a toxic relationship or was it romantic? It all depends on how these characters developed their chemistry and how time progresses.

My mind is still processing the true story and altered story, so forgive me if I didn’t describe it clearly in my review. But “May December” is another worthy piece of fresh entertainment from Haynes, and his two leads Portman and Moore.

Rating: 3.5 out of 4.

In Select Theaters This Friday

Streaming on Netflix December 1

Categories: Drama

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