Todd Haynes would seem an ideal choice to direct a story inspired by the real-life case of schoolteacher Mary Kay LeTourneau, who made headlines in the 1990s when she raped a 12-year-old student, then married him and raised a family. It’s still an eye-opener after all this time, and certainly ripe for adaptation as a movie. 

A sharp observer of women’s roles in society and suburban life, as evidenced in such films as Safe, Carol, the Douglas Sirk-inspired Far From Heaven and the miniseries Mildred Pierce, Haynes is right at home in this fictionalized narrative written by Samy Burch and Alex Mechanik. Natalie Portman plays a television star who arrives on the scene to spend time with Julianne Moore, whom she is about to portray in a movie. Most of the residents of the community seem to accept Moore, as her notoriety has faded with time. The one character who seems perpetually uncomfortable is her still-youthful-looking husband, a somewhat pathetic figure here, as played by Charles Melton.

Moore has her doubts about the upcoming movie, which she has agreed to, and even more questions about the inquisitive Portman and her research for the role. Is she going to present a mirror-image of Moore or will she be judging her, she seems to be asking herself.

Haynes burrows into the screenplay and piques our curiosity about both women, with the help of his two gifted actresses, who deliver finely nuanced performances. There’s more going on behind their carefully calculated facades than might be apparent at first.

The director uses Marcelo Zarvos’s emphatic score to comment on the mock seriousness of his approach. I actually chuckled at its first appearance on the soundtrack, wondering if it was intended to be humorous or an audio homage to Douglas Sirk and his melodramas from years past.

At a time when more and more movies are based on real-life stories a picture that leaves some intriguing questions unanswered is not unwelcome. May December allows us to decide what we think of its characters for ourselves, which is to its credit. 

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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May 2024