In the 1990’s, a schoolteacher named Mary Kay Letourneau had an affair with a seventh grader (twelve-year-old) she had previously taught. She had his first child in jail, and the two later started a family. This is the jumping off point of Todd Haynes’ new film “May December” (A May-December romance is one between two people with a considerable age difference), a film indebted to but not based off the nationwide scandal. The film takes a look at a fictional relationship between a couple twenty years after a similar scandal, with Julianne Moore and Charles Melton playing the couple (Gracie and Joe, respectively) and Natalie Portman playing Elizabeth Berry, a Juilliard-trained actress coming to study the family for a film based on their lives.
In the end, I had mixed feelings about the film. I had to sit on my thoughts for a few days before I could even think about writing on it, which is definitely the effect Haynes intended on. However one finds the pacing, the reason the film draws you in can best be phrased as the question Gracie’s first husband asks Elizabeth during a coffee sit-down: “what would make a thirty-six-year-old woman have an affair with a seventh grader?” Your mind spends the entirety of the film trying to find an answer to that question. To me, some of the most interesting films portray characters that are unknowable; we want so desperately to understand how they can do what they’re doing – whether they’re serial killers, sex offenders, even secret agents that manage to vanish amongst a crowd of people – so we continue watching in an effort to discern how these people work on the inside. Some of this material can be handled with a little less tact (see Ryan Murphy’s Dahmer show), but when done somewhat correctly you have a film that as digestible but at the same time confounding.
One way that May December keeps your jaw perpetually dropped is through the campy tone that permeates every scene; I’m not joking, many a review mentions how this film intentionally plays out as your typical soapy melodrama. Every single detail having to do with their respective ages then becomes extremely jarring. That’s a part of the genius of the film, even if its commitment to camp eventually veers it away from a full exploration of the subject matter. This film, which is a glimpse at an inherently stunted relationship twenty years later, plays out as if it’s about any normal couple. In an early scene where the couple has Portman’s Elizabeth over for an introductory dinner – she’s come to stay in town to study them – Gracie and Joe parse out whether it was in sixth or seventh grade that they “met,” as nonchalantly as if they were talking about the weather for the coming week. Joe waxes poetically about how much he’s going to miss his children as the youngest two head off for college, when in reality he looks more like an older brother to them than a father. At thirty-six years old, Joe is about to be an empty-nester.
The key to this film working, at least as much as it does, is Charles Melton’s performance. I haven’t seen Riverdale – his biggest acting credit thus far – but I’d still bet my left hand that his turn in this film will surprise some people. Melton gained forty pounds for the role to play a pot-bellied, emotionally stunted empty-nester. To play Joe successfully, Melton had to nail the performance of a thirty-six-year-old father of three who is still twelve years old on the inside — a kid that, despite engaging in all of these consequential life decisions, may be less fully developed than those he fathered. Melton plays a character who, arguably, isn’t the main character in his own life. Joe was far too young to give consent at the start of what he still in the present perceives as a mutual affair; he asserts to Elizabeth in their first one-on-one conversation that “he wanted it.” Although Joe is purportedly an adult by now, Gracie still chastises him like a child if he has more than one beer, and he constantly has to comfort her through her temper tantrums. Melton’s character constantly advocates for Gracie, but never seems all too comfortable with her. Especially as the story goes on and Elizabeth probes deeper and deeper into how much he could’ve possibly consented to in what became a relationship of over two decades. Despite being a statue of a man, Melton’s nervous posture and hushed tone of voice signal the inner child desperately trying to claw its way out as much as his outward appearance knowingly tries to bury it.
One of the most jarring instances that highlights Melton’s performance, and serves as an example of how the film’s treating all past events in the film’s world as normal makes the experience more unnerving, is when Melton’s Joe is sitting on the roof of his home, thinking. His high school senior son, one of the two set to leave for college soon, comes out and sits next to him, initially not realizing that he’s there. Joe nervously tries to make small talk with a son who he knows will be leaving him soon, giving the typical parent spiel about how his kid is all grown up, affirming that he can visit home whenever he wants. In any other film this would be a normal – most likely boring – conversation, complete with the son nodding knowingly; “when is dad gonna shut up?” But you feel compelled to wonder if anyone else in the theater is seeing this right now, because while Joe has the candor of a typical father, he’s far from that.
He’s a thirty-six-year-old man whose youngest child is about to leave for college, an experience he presumably never had the luxury of indulging in. Melton plays this entire scene perfectly straight, showing that Joe has for decades shoved down all the evidence we find irregular. The nail is driven even further down when Joe’s son asks if he’s going to be on the roof much longer; his son wants to smoke a joint. Joe, wanting to seem cool, tells his son to go ahead. It’s right then that you realize there was no point in the timeline in Joe’s life where he could have tried weed; Joe was in this relationship from when he was twelve years old on, Gracie probably even introduced him to alcohol. He awkwardly admits that he’s “never done that,” and soon after takes a puff. Joe then completely breaks down and laments about how much he loves his son, desperate to know that his son is aware he feels that way. After that, he almost falls off the roof.
To me, May December is near perfect in all of these ways. The fact that it gives you this family to study and puts this work into depicting it is reason enough to watch alone. My only qualm is that it commits to the campiness so heavily – the same score is present in almost every other scene – that it never gets around to a conclusive dissection of how Gracie and Joe’s relationship is really doing in the present. There is a scene very late in the film where Joe, now awake to all these questions we as the audience have been asking, confronts Gracie about whether he may have been too young to fully consent. He laments, “If we’re really as in love as we say we are, why can’t we talk about it?” Gracie quickly shuts him down and asserts that he was in charge. It’s only towards the end that one wonders if twenty minutes could’ve been cut from depicting the seemingly banal day-to-day and put towards a more direct examination of the relationship at the heart of the story. Maybe it’s part of the point that said conversation is never finished, but we feel that same hunger for some sort of clarity that Joe does, and neither him nor us receive anything quite satisfying.