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.