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The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

“May December” and the politics of scandal

Courtesy Cannes Film Festival

Todd Haynes’ latest directorial effort “May December” has been making waves since its Netflix release on Dec. 1. The movie features the double power bill of Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman, and a surprising breakthrough role for “Riverdale” supporting player Charles Melton.

The crux of the story happens 20 years before the movie begins: in the ‘90s, Gracie Atherton (Moore) is caught having an “affair” with seventh grader Joe Yoo (Melton), her son’s schoolmate. The whole business becomes a tabloid scandal, and Atherton is sent to prison—after serving her sentence, Atherton and Yoo reunite to get married. The plot is loosely based on the real life story of Mary Kay Letourneau, who had a sexual relationship with her 12-year-old student.

In the present day, actress Elizabeth Barry (Portman) is sent to the Atherton-Yoo household for a movie dramatizing the scandal, in which she is playing Gracie. She arrives at a pivotal time for the family: their two youngest children are college-aged, and, at the end of the summer, are about to move out.

Haynes delicately guides the viewer through a minefield of shifting power dynamics. Characters oscillate skillfully between positions of power within scenes, in a way that is difficult to place but impossible not to feel.

It is this quality that makes “May December” both riveting and terrifying. The movie is more than a simple condemnation of its sex offender protagonist, or a critique of how movie industries exploit victims’ narratives under the guise of “telling their stories.” “May December” exists in a complex web of conflicting personalities, suggesting some sort of mystery where there is none to be found.

All the facts of the case are laid out: Gracie is a rapist, Joe is a victim, and their children are caught in the crossfire. Elizabeth’s appearance tips these obvious truths into imbalance, with her relentless quest to find something “real” in the scandal. Her presence changes things for the entire family, as Gracie and Joe are constantly reminded of the foundations of their relationship.

However, we soon find that Elizabeth is in way over her head—understanding Gracie is far more difficult than trying to trace the roots of her trauma. The “truth,” if it even exists, is far more slippery than it may seem. But Elizabeth is sucked into her detective work investigating Gracie’s life, even as she reaches more dead ends than avenues.

The screenplay was written by Samy Burch—recently snubbed in Oscar nominations—who handles the subject matter with the nuance and wit that it would crumble without. Her writing is a masterclass in dynamic tension: the story undergoes four or five paradigm shifts that entirely change our perception of events.

Charles Melton has been getting the most buzz for his performance as Joe Yoo, which conveys the complex reality of having to be an adult since he was a child, and being stuck as a child even as an adult. He’s visibly caught up in his cross-section of roles—loving husband, preteen father, media victim—in a way that is not melodramatic but completely and helplessly restrained.

Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman are both excellent as the movie’s stars. In a metaphorical sense, the two are one and the same: of course, Haynes makes clear that the scale of crime is different, but both fundamentally exploit people in one way or another, and neither recognize the emotional casualties in the way. Moore gets to brilliantly explode, whereas Portman is more subdued but also more outwardly schemish.

The movie certainly invites armchair diagnosis, but the indelible fog of mystery surrounding the movie’s characters is what makes “May December” so fascinating. Most of what occurs is mundane, as the primary drama involves uncovering a crime that happened 20 years ago. The viewer is given a few questions to anticipate: who’s going to snap, will Joe be freed, will Elizabeth find the “truth” she’s looking for, etc.

But though audiences may want some catharsis from this disgusting ordeal, the movie all but tells viewers to expect nothing and, by its end, provides only irresolution. Here lies a resounding truth: real-life injustices rarely find moral resolution. Sensationalized stories of scandals almost always find some way to satisfy viewers by the end; “May December” provides no such nicety.

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About the Contributor
Ryan Yau
Ryan Yau, Living Arts Co-Editor
Ryan Yau (he/him) is a first-year journalism major from Hong Kong. He writes and edits for the Living Arts section, normally feature stories on artists and arts events in Boston, usually film-related. Occasionally he has an opinion. He recreationally play saxophone.

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