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May-December–Mirror, MIrror on the Wall

Loosely based on the tabloid-heavy coverage of a scandalous sexual affair  by a 36-year-old teacher, Mary Kay Leourneau, perpetrated on her 12-year-old student, Vili Fualaau, Todd Haynes’ May December continues the story over twenty years later.   The couple, Joe (Charles Melton) and Gracie (Julianne Moore) are a picture-perfect married couple with two children, (born while Gracie was serving her prison sentence). Currently, the family is ensconced in a waterfront mansion in Savannah, Georgia,  blissfully ignoring their past.

In walks a B-list actress, Elizabeth (Natalie Portman), thirsting to elevate her career above playing in soap operas.  She introduces herself, explaining she wants to research Gracie’s life  accurately,  without prejudice or sensationalizing and repeating the 1990’s headlines of their lives at that moment in time.    Elizabeth sweetly and profusely thanks the family for generously giving her access to them and  their friends.  This indie-film project could be Elizabeth’s ticket to fame and stardom.

The actress becomes obsessed with mining Gracie’s mental state.  Was her sex with seventh-grader Joe a passionate romance as Gracie fervently believes, or a psychopath’s fever-dream of what others “owe” her– her right to a forbidden love? 

Elizabeth and Gracie are soon filmed as mirror-images of each other, and the director plays upon this with multiple scenes of both of them reflecting each other in mirrors.  They are reflections of two equally strong, willful, insecure women dominating the worlds they have created for themselves, featuring themselves as the main star.  Neither can admit to herself or to the other woman that she has created a house of sand. 

Gracie and Elizabeth are both performing:  wearing masks they can’t take off,  projecting warmth and human feelings for others, which are merely simulated and unreal.  But it is Joe, the now 36-year-old man-child, who is riveting and perhaps the most puzzling.   He is now a father and the same age Gracie was when she had illegal sex with him as a pre-teen. Having been deprived of a typical boyhood, does Joe even know what he wants, how to be a father and husband, how to be himself? 

Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman  give exquisite performances,  pivoting and eviscerating each other in a merciless, quietly brutal way.   And Charles Melton is a knockout: heartbreaking as Joe, a handsome, almost-too-large physical presence of what can only be a damaged child, a carapace Peter Pan. Melton infuses Joe with a tragic quality difficult to identify.  And that is the point.

May December depicts the unraveling of the purported American dream, turned nightmare, one of Todd Hayne’s favorite themes.  All about what lies below the surface: nothing but more lies. 

Much critical acclaim has been written about the three actors’ truly remarkable interpretations of each character.  However, the film, May December,  is nonetheless difficult to review. Haynes and the screenwriter, Samy Burch, delineate a harrowing landscape of psychological manipulation,   of pathological ambition and need for success.  

May December is highly compelling to witness the moral injury and the unreliable crucibles the protagonists create to justify their actions.  However, their unhealed wounds and unnerving neuroses are not quite grounded in sufficient backstory to understand the rupture of the human feelings of compassion and common decency.  Why did Gracie feel incapable of loving a peer and had to victimize a child?  What happened to her earlier, as a child and young adult? While some past references are intriguing, they are insufficient to understand Gracie.  And why did Elizabeth need this American success story for her own self-worth?  And how did Joe–particularly Joe’s father–explain what was happening? Or were they both silent?

Mirror, mirror on the wall–not enough family history to explain all the lies at all.  The coda of the final scene is truly incomplete, like a first draft of a script, needing more revisions.

Availability:  Netflix

Note: Fualaau and Letourneau married in 2005, when Fualaau turned 21. They divorced in 2019 but Fualaau was with her when she died in 2020.

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