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Now streaming on Netflix, “May December” is a hard watch, but one well worth it

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Courtesy of Netflix
Natalie Portman (left) and Julianne Moore (right) star in “May December,” which is based on the real-life predatory relationship of Mary Kay Letourneau and Vili Fualaau.

“May December” is not a movie for the faint of heart. More a character study than anything else, the film hones in on the inner lives and relationships of its three leading characters: actress Elizabeth (Natalie Portman) as well as husband and wife Joe (Charles Melton) and Gracie (Julianne Moore). Elizabeth, who is playing Gracie in her upcoming movie, has come to visit the couple in their large, waterfront home in Savannah, Georgia in the hopes of getting to know them better. But what has this picture-perfect suburban couple done to make them the subjects of an upcoming feature film?

The answer is nothing short of horrifying. Gracie, decades older than Joe, met and began a relationship with him when he was in the seventh grade. The pair was all over the tabloids, even as Gracie’s trial wore on and she eventually went to jail—while pregnant with Joe’s baby. In the film’s present day they now have three children together, the younger two in the midst of graduating from high school. They claim to be in love. Worse still, Gracie and Joe’s story is closely based on the real-life case of Mary Kay Letourneau and Vili Fualaau. Letourneau, a teacher, sexually abused Fualaau, her 12-year-old student. They eventually got married and had two kids together. Moore exaggerates Letournau’s real-life vocal tics, turning her “loose upper palate” into a full-on lisp, and the filmmakers even incorporated some of Letourneau actual quotes into the film’s script.

Portman, Moore and Melton take this obviously disturbing premise and run with it as far as they can. Portman’s Elizabeth is overly involved in her craft, mimicking Gracie’s mannerisms to an unsettling degree. She, too, starts to speak with a lisp, and positions her body to match Gracie’s when no one else is around. She follows Gracie everywhere around Savannah and even gets into contact with her children from her previous marriage without Gracie’s permission.

One of the funnier parts of this dark, unsettling movie is that Elizabeth is honestly a terrible actress—and I do not mean Portman herself, who does a great job of portraying an unskilled actor. Elizabeth’s Gracie voice is exaggerated and breathy, and this movie that she has been researching so much for is equally bad. Portman herself says about the movie within the movie: “They’re shooting a tacky scene. You can tell that it’s intentionally not the highest quality. It’s like—all of this drama and interfering with someone’s life for this movie? It puts a cap on the tragedy of it, of what people are willing to do for their alleged art and the tumult they can impose on someone else’s life.” Gracie is no saint, but what Elizabeth is doing to her—and more so, to Joe—definitely crosses a line.

Moore is a fine actress as well, and plays nicely with Portman, but the other performance that really wowed me was Melton’s. Up until now, his best-known roles have been Reggie from “Riverdale” and the male lead in “The Sun is Also a Star”—two productions that are definitely not of the finest caliber. But in “May December,” Melton’s portrayal of someone coming to terms with their own abuse is nothing short of fantastic. For most of the movie, Joe is withdrawn and acts like an overgrown child, doing whatever Gracie tells him to do. But towards the end, as Joe realizes that what has happened to him is not acceptable, Melton makes the audience feel the full weight of his character’s anguish. As the New York Times writes, he “gives the movie its slow-building emotional power.”

All in all, “May December” is a chilling watch, but one that’s well worth it. Though the subject matter is quite serious, it’s handled in a way that is both delicate and nuanced, as well as accessible to the average viewer. It balances its more emotionally weighty moments with lighter, humorous ones that still manage to not take away from the film’s dark tone. If you’re interested in seeing some great actors at their very best, then I would highly recommend that you check out “May December,” currently streaming on Netflix.

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About the Contributor
Kate Gordon, Life Editor
Kate Gordon (she/her) is a third-year student double majoring in communication sciences and disorders and cognitive science, and minoring in Spanish. Her favorite part of The Observer is being able to share her passion for movies, television, music and pop culture as a whole. When she isn’t writing or editing she likes to spend her time reading, thrifting, sipping boba and bothering her roommates.

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