I don't talk about it much anymore. I'm not quite willing to say it's a distant memory. It's more like it's lessened in importance and lessened in the ways that it influences my daily living. I don't feel the need to talk about it anymore.
It wasn't really like it is in Todd Haynes' May December. Our age difference was only about ten years. I wasn't a child. It wasn't rape. At least, I think it wasn't rape. Sometimes, I wonder. However, when you've lived a life where rape has been more present than love you look for any opportunity at all to say "Nope, this wasn't rape."
So, I'm sticking with it.
I was in my late teens, I think, a paraplegic with spina bifida and a new amputee when I met her. She was my therapist, an MSW working for a non-profit organization that offered sliding scale counseling for wounded souls like myself who'd experienced trauma. All went well, normal really, until I went through a period where I was stuck at home but needed counseling to continue. I was a sexual abuse survivor trying desperately to become less afraid of humanity around me. We were working on all issues that survivors work on including, yes, touch.
That was the mistake. Her mistake? My mistake? I don't really know.
All I know is it happened. Lines were crossed not just once but often. It went on for four years, or until I myself had healed to the point that I could say to myself "This is wrong." So, when I became strong enough or clear enough or healed enough to stop it - I did. I still remember her driving away that last time when suddenly she turns up Melissa Etheridge's song "I'm the Only One" very, very loud. I have a feeling Etheridge would hate that her song was used that way.
But, it was.
I laugh now. It was my longest "relationship," a semi-consensual thing that I can't define but it has always, always reinforced in my heart and in my mind the idea that I can't be loved. I still wonder sometimes, though in the years to follow I would have a handful of fairly healthy relationships with genuinely wonderful human beings who were not my therapist.
Truthfully, I dreaded watching May December because I knew it was a film that would trigger me.
I was right. It did trigger me.
May December is also a tremendous film, a horror film masked as a melodrama and a surprisingly and uncomfortably funny film about unfunny people making unfunny choices and living unfunny lives.
We meet Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman) early. She's arrived in Georgia to shadow Julianne Moore's Gracie Atherton-Yoo, a bit of a local celebrity for all the wrong reasons. It's not readily apparent that Gracie knows they're all the wrong reasons, though she's managed to convince herself of such. Elizabeth plans to shadow Gracie and her family and her community in an effort to better understand her and to find the truths within the facade. As we meet Gracie, she seems relatively normal with an obviously younger but attractive husband, Joe (Charles Melton), and two of her three kids still living in the waterfront home they were able to purchase the first time they sold the rights to their story.
Oh yeah. You're probably waiting. May December is loosely based upon the story of Mary Kay Letourneau, a teacher who went to prison for having an affair (raping) a 12-year-old student, Vili Fualaau, and eventually marrying him and raising their two children after having served her prison time. Gracie is not a teacher. She was 36-years-old when she met 13-year-old Joe while working at a local pet shop. They had sex or, in my own version of the story, she raped him.
It's been years now. Gracie and Joe are married with three children including one about to graduate from college. Gracie has convinced herself that the world has gone on, her marriage to Joe the only proof needed to justify her choices despite the regular appearance of regular foul packages at her doorstep and an almost Stepford-like unease in most places where she goes.
Elizabeth is here to better understand Gracie, though asking a woman who regularly wears masks herself to understand hidden truths may be a bit much.
Gracie and Joe live in peaceful domestic bliss in the very same town where everything happened and where her ex-husband (D.W. Moffett) and estranged son (Cory Michael Smith) still live. If we lie to ourselves long enough, those lies frequently become truths.
May December is what happens when you hand remarkable, complex material to a masterfully gifted ensemble. In the wrong hands, May December would have been a cinematic disaster. In these hands, May December is very nearly a masterpiece.
Natalie Portman is extraordinary as Elizabeth, a one-take reading of a letter Gracie wrote Joe being a jarring and mesmerizing highlight. Portman's Elizabeth is intelligent, ambitious, and perpetually boundary challenging yet still somehow different from Gracie. It's been a while since Portman has had a role as complex and layered as this one and she absolutely makes the most of it. An Academy Award nomination is expected.
As Gracie, Julianne Moore mesmerizes in much the same way she's mesmerized over the years. She so completely immerses herself in Gracie's realities that you almost forget that she's acting. A regular collaborator with Haynes, Moore clearly understands what he's going for here and 100% delivers.
As magnificent as Portman and Moore are, the real revelation here is Charles Melton as Joe. The Riverdale star, he's Reggie, takes what so easily could have been a caricature and breathes life into him. Melton's performance sets the film's emotional rhythms alongside the musical score from Marcelo Zarvos. If theres' a true breakout performance in 2023, it likely comes from Melton and it's impossible to imagine his work here won't elevate him up the Hollywood chain.
This first feature screenplay from Samy Burch is complicated, mysterious, and imperfectly disciplined in all the right ways. It's a remarkable debut feature script for Burch, whose own fortunes should now skyrise.
May December isn't a perfect film, though it's in its imperfections that it finds its emotional force and cinematic magnetism. These are, after all, imperfect people who've managed to convince themselves they're living perfect lives until something or someone comes along to toss a pebble into their glass houses.
May December has triggered the crap out of me. May December is also one of my favorite films of 2023.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic