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Film Review: May December

FILM REVIEW
MAY DECEMBER
Rated R
117 Minutes
Released December 1st, Screening at the Bay Theatre in Pacific Palisades and on Netflix

May December is a beautifully shot, acted, and edited movie by noted indie director Todd Haynes (Wonderstruck, Carol, I’m Not There.) The film sets a tone immediately and never breaks from style.

The visuals and the music serve to draw you into the characters, who are all authentic, complex, and fascinating, with epic Shakespearean-size tragic flaws. The screenplay by Samy Burch is so skillfully written that it reveals bit by bit, only as necessary, clues and pieces of the psychological puzzle that is each character and creates an ever-present shroud of mystery and foreboding that lurks underneath the action and the faces that we see. A single line spoken by a character reveals the trauma that underlies their fraught relationships. Composer Marcelo Zavros adapted and reorchestrated the score of Joseph Losey’s 1971 The Go-Between. It works perfectly here.

The story is loosely based on the true story of Mary Kay Letourneau, an elementary school teacher who, in the 1990s, seduced and raped her 12-year-old student, Vili Fualaau, and married him in 2005. Fualaau, at the time, called the relationship consensual but years later noted that it was abusive and “unhealthy from the start.” Natalie Portman brought the script to Haynes, and Haynes suggested Julianne Moore, with whom he has collaborated several times, to play opposite her. The film was shot in a mere 23 days in Savannah, Georgia. Portman and Moore riff off one another as if they are in a fencing match minus the protective tips on their swords, yet not allowed to touch the opponent. Moore plays “Gracie,” based on Letourneau, and Portman plays “Elizabeth,” an actress who will be portraying Gracie in a film and wants to immerse herself in Gracie’s real life. Elizabeth tries to mirror her subject down to minute details. 

The actor who steals the show, if that’s even possible here with such great performances, is Charles Melton, who portrays “Joe,” the Fualaau character. Melton is known for his role as “Reggie” in the teen series Riverdale. Melton packed on 40 pounds to gain a “Dad Bod” for this role. He has navigated the extremely difficult process of playing the inner child that outwardly presents itself in Joe’s mid-thirties damaged personality. This role is the most challenging, the most unnerving, and really the center of the story. Cory Michael Smith, who has a background in musical theatre and is a trained pianist, also makes an impression in a small but important role as Gracie’s bitingly sarcastic older son by her first husband.

This movie will swing you in one direction to the other, like the Sea Dragon Ride at Pacific Park, and it is superbly ironic on a large scale as well as in impactful lines of dialogue. One of the best scenes shows Dad and son sitting on the roof conversing – but the roles are completely flipped. The most ironic line in the film is “…because that’s what adults do.” Watch for it. 

My only complaint is that the ending felt too emotionally abrupt and not because it leaves things hanging. That’s always OK. It seemed as if the movie and all the people inhabiting it suddenly spontaneously combusted. I would like to have more at the end of Elizabeth’s mirroring melting into her own personality flaws. I like to see a “trailhead” at the end of a movie that we can navigate in our imaginations. Despite its troubling content, this is one of the best films of the year. This is what movies should look like. The movie has been nominated for several Film Independent awards, and Melton has been honored with Gotham and New York Film Critics Circle awards. 

Kathryn Whitney Boole has spent most of her life in the entertainment industry, which has been the backdrop for remarkable adventures with extraordinary people.  She is a Talent Manager with Studio Talent Group in Santa Monica. kboole@gmail.com

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