This article contains a few spoilers from “May December.”
One thing is true about the audacity 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 passed it off as totally mundane and appropriate for general audiences on a weekday. In May 2005, it was the wedding footage of Mary Kay Letourneau and Vili Fualaau.
If you’re unfamiliar, Letourneau was a schoolteacher who began statutorily raping her student Fualaau when he was only 12 years old. Ten years — including her 7½-year imprisonment — and two children later, they were married. And “The Insider” sat down with the smiling couple in an interview that was prominently about, of all things, love.
She was the 43-year-old white, giddy bride-to-be set 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 dad of Samoan heritage who seemed marginally happy.
This was meant to be normal. And to validate that, millions of people watched, riveted.
We didn’t really know the interiority 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 vexing 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, with time offering the ultimate clarity? And it challenges the audience to sit with that as we remain 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 preyed upon 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 enthralled white actor who disrupts the couple’s lives when she visits them while preparing to portray Gracie in an appropriately schlocky movie. Keeping with the salaciousness, Elizabeth has also set her sights on seducing the emotionally fragile Joe.
All of this makes for a provocative look at depredation perpetrated by two white women: One, an ordinary homebody and the other a glamorous celebrity. Both assume the same power and are portrayed by superb actors who have individually worked to circumvent their own objectification in Hollywood.
The actors’ inversion of that in these roles highlights a disquieting irony that may or may not be intentional — and deftly so.
That said, “May December” is a deeply aware movie, laden with as much thought as it has scandal. But despite the scandal element, as well as its cottony lens reminiscent of the maudlin coating of 1967’s “Valley of the Dolls,” it isn’t a vapid melodrama. But that look feels intentional 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 that comes with no real concern for their well-being. It’s also a discomforting drama that keenly observes the way white female sexuality threatens and is performed for the most vulnerable.
Even in moments when he has no dialogue, Melton is hard not to watch. When we meet Joe, he’s a 36-year-old man who appears somewhat mechanical and childlike at this point in his and Gracie’s life together. Upon Elizabeth’s first visit, Gracie and Joe are having a cookout, and he is responsible for the grill while the two women talk.
We get a sense that Joe might be interested in their discussion, but he’s also dedicated to the task given to him by Gracie. And when the couple shares a moment off 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. Like he’s been programmed — or groomed.
Joe’s state comes into closer focus in a scene where he’s sitting on the roof, awkwardly smoking pot, obviously for the first time, alongside his much more developed son Charlie (Gabriel Chung), days before he leaves for college. And the father starts to break down in tears.
It’s hard to tell for sure whether that’s due to the thought of missing his son, realizing he never had an adolescence that would have likely equipped him with the knowledge of at least how to roll a joint, or the awareness that he’ll soon be left alone with his internal conflicts. Or a combination of all of these things.
But it’s a troubling, crucial moment interrupted only by Joe’s embarrassed laughter and Gracie, as usual, dropping into the scene to bring his attention to trivial matters that concern her. It’s only compounded later in the film when he tries to talk to Gracie about his anxieties around how their relationship started.
Appearing puzzled by her husband’s words, Gracie falls back on a familiar manipulation tactic when she projects a false narrative — likely not for the first time — on him: “You seduced me.”
It’s a dizzying moment for Joe designed to also be disturbing for the audience to watch as Gracie beckons for him to join her in bed — not to ease his concerns but to pet him as she wraps his arm around her lingeried hips. She does all of this with such calculation, reminding the audience that she is still the predator in this relationship while reassuring his manhood.
The movie is chock-full of uncomfortable moments like these and two complicated, sharply defined female characters that claim to believe their bullshit. And painfully, Joe doesn’t know the difference either way.
Elizabeth realizes that just as quickly as she sweeps in on the couple. She’s clearly enamored by what the pair has 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 when Elizabeth watches as Gracie applies her makeup for a nice dinner. It’s a complex scene that draws your attention to the idea that an actor is merely studying her character when, more maniacally, Elizabeth is working to embody the kind of dangerous power that Gracie possesses naturally.
It’s a contemplation on the motivations of an actor’s process, at times worthy of scrutiny, like it certainly is with Elizabeth throughout the film, as well as what we might understand as female empowerment when it comes at the expense of someone else.
Joe is flailing while 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 with power. And Joe has none.
“This is what adults do,” Elizabeth simply tells Joe.
Long after the credits roll in “May December,” after Elizabeth gets what she needs for her low-rate yet sure-to-be-popular performance (we see a snippet that confirms that), and Gracie and Joe retreat to their now quieter home behind the picket fence, Joe’s fate lingers in the mind.
That’s not just because the movie never reaches a tidy conclusion concerning his character. It’s because now that Haynes has more intimately guided us into the lives of people behind the headlines, we’re left with plaguing questions that challenge what we hold dear: our entertainment, our source of empowerment, our safety.
“May December” doesn’t claim to have the answers. That’s what makes it so unsettling.
“May December” is in select theaters Friday and will stream on Netflix on Dec. 1.