If you grew up in the ‘80s and ‘90s, you are probably familiar with the concept of the May-December romance.
At the height of the tabloid talk era, older women in relationships with younger men were the narrative archetype du jour. Daytime dramas, talk shows, tabloid front pages, and made-for-television movies all dedicated hefty cultural space to these fictional and real-life scandals. The most notorious story of the era was that of Mary Kay Letourneau, an elementary school teacher who sexually abused Vili Fualaau, a 12-year-old male student. After her arrest, convictions of statutory rape, and the birth of two children, she and Fualaau married, which lasted until she died in 2020.
May-December romances weren’t all stories of criminality, sexual misconduct, and child abuse. Still, mainstream culture often shared language between the inappropriate and the deplorable, infrequently explaining the key differences. There weren’t widespread, nuanced conversations about consent, gaps in power, grooming, and exploitation. The discussions often started and ended with the salaciousness of the sex and age gaps. (It only takes one look at social media to show how we still get tripped up on those points.) The collective failure of the era was how it diminished the horrors of lost innocence in favor of splashy headlines and television ratings.
It should come as no surprise, then, where May December gets its name. Todd Haynes’ film directly responds to that period, looking twenty years into the future of the fictional relationship of Gracie (Julianne Moore) and Joe (Charles Melton). After two decades, a jail stint for Gracie, and three children, the family has settled into somewhat pleasant domesticity. And yet, the entertainment world is always nipping at their heels. This time, it’s in the form of Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman), slated to play Gracie in an upcoming movie. Charmed by the chance at a sympathetic portrayal, Gracie grants access Elizabeth unfettered access. Elizabeth is laser-focused on finding the truth behind their marriage and Gracie’s glossy exterior. Her investigations throw everyone’s stability into disarray as past issues come into sharp focus.
On the surface, May December is a barbed soap opera where two grand divas trade cutting one-liners and withering looks. (Think All My Children’s Erica Kane versus any of her rivals, or Bette Davis and Anne Baxter in All About Eve.) Sammy Burch’s screenplay is a feast of shady lines crafted to chew its targets up and spit them out. Gracie and Elizabeth do wonders with the melodrama, as neither are foolish enough to take the other at face value. Every pleasant exchange – a flower arrangement class here, a makeup tutorial there – carries a sinister undercurrent. Haynes’ ferocious direction bolsters the comedic tension, making every jab through the pleasantries land with jarring impact. The film would still be delightful if it never went deeper than Gracie’s delusional passive aggression and Elizabeth’s encroaching boundary violations.
May December seeks more, though. Haynes uses Elizabeth’s acting process to probe the hypocrisies of 90s tabloid culture and the suburban communities they focused on. With the same bite of Gracie and Elizabeth’s interactions, the film peels back the layers of Gracie and Joe’s rotted relationship. Their domestic bliss is primarily fiction. The kindness (or pity) of friends who haven’t abandoned Gracie holds up her seemingly bustling cake business. (The loss of one client sends her into a nervous breakdown.) Their children aren’t thrilled with their lives as the offspring of pariahs. Gracie’s children from her previous marriage don’t speak to her, even though her ex-husband lets her alone. Everyone is polite (except her especially bitter eldest son), but the discomfort is palpable. Elizabeth’s journeys into the past aren’t much better, as she reads news clips and watches old footage that relishes in the depravity.
The past news cycle and the present dancing around eggshells ignore Joe’s role in this twisted tale, but Haynes doesn’t. He carves out space to explore the character’s tragically arrested development. Even though Joe is in his mid-thirties and has three kids, he barely registers as an adult. He is profoundly sad, finding glimmers of happiness in hobbies Gracie considers silly. Joe often follows her direction, either unwilling to challenge her or lacking the skills to do so. Elizabeth’s arrival sparks a second puberty in him, but he can’t process those feelings because he has no experience with them. Gracie robbed him of his youth, innocence, agency, and spirit, trapping him in a life he never could’ve been ready for. Paired with Marcelo Zarvos’ powerful score, the truth is brutal: Joe’s story isn’t a misunderstood romance or sleazy headline grabber. It is a sickening horror.
Charles Melton’s thoughtful work conveying May December’s heartbreaking truth is excellent. While he has less narrative space than Natalie Portman or Julianne Moore at first, his tentative demeanor draws you in. As Haynes pulls closer into Joe’s perspective, Melton cracks that compelling, mysterious shell to expose the bruised adolescent at his core. He is achingly vulnerable in Joe’s journey of re-discovery and his confrontations with Elizabeth and Gracie. Portman and Moore are at the height of their powers, crafting very detailed layers of flawed women that will bend reality to their will for their goals. Seeing them face off is too much fun, especially as they toy with who has the upper hand. However, Melton is the film’s shattered soul.
Even in the glow of hindsight, missing what should be glaringly obvious can be easy. Todd Haynes highlights that uncomfortable reality with May December. He knows audiences will likely leave the film with a love of its campy thrills and snarky tone. (Somewhere, Ryan Murphy is shouting into the void.) Haynes beckons you to look closer than that and engage the seedier, anguished underpinnings. The 90s are undergoing an active interrogation project, with today’s concepts sparking re-evaluation of our collective cultural memory. It is important work, but this film is a pointed reminder that it is nowhere near complete.
May December releases in select theaters on November 17th and on Netflix December 1st.