May December is not an easy film to parse. There’s the backstory, based on a true story, of a teacher who “fell in love with” (heavy on the quotation marks) her 13-year-old student, bearing his children while serving time for child rape and later marrying and settling down with him when her prison sentence ended. (To those familiar, it’s unmistakably a riff on the Mary Kay Letourneau case; to those unfamiliar, sorry for introducing you.) Then there’s the main story, set 20 years later, when an actress playing the teacher in a film about the scandal flies out to her subject’s home to research the role up close. Clearly May December is going for something self-reflexive—some metatext on how movies adapt real-life crime stories. And it is that, to an extent. But it’s also a lot of other things, and those things are frankly bonkers.

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Weopen on close-ups of butterflies set to a dramatic minor-key piano theme, which, given the film’s subject matter, feels inappropriately cheeky—these delicate creatures, elevated to symbolism by being the first thing we see, backed by a score fit for a soap opera twist? For a story like this? Director Todd Haynes is no stranger to the experimental, but his previous film, Dark Waters, was one of his most straightforward, so this butterfly soap opera is a little jarring. It’s more reminiscent of Deep Water, that Ben Affleck erotic thriller with all the close-ups of snails. It’s uncomfortable to compare a film with child rape in its periphery to lurid, pulpy erotica, but, it turns out, that specific brand of discomfort is exactly what May December wants you to feel.

There’s a lot of tension in this movie, and more than some of it is sexual. First and foremost is the world’s weirdest love triangle: Gracie Atherton (Julianne Moore), a convicted child predator, is controversially still married to Joe (Charles Melton), an early-30s dad with kids in college, and they both have sexual tension with Elizabeth (Natalie Portman), the actress studying Gracie for a movie. Elizabeth, for her part, is the source of much of that tension—she’s this chilly coastal elite type, voluble and friendly but totally insincere, and her idea of getting into Gracie’s head involves surreptitiously flirting with Joe and engaging in a Persona/Mulholland Drive-esque “I’m becoming you” dynamic with Gracie herself. She’s the pernicious personification of how cinema can distort a story—play up its sensational angles, methodically “unpuzzle” its subjects, slot real-life people into genre-fied situations. Fittingly, Portman plays like her a sociopath.

Also fittingly, the sensually charged scenes between Elizabeth and Gracie are shot much like the films that inspired their dynamic. A scene in which Gracie gives Elizabeth a makeup tutorial on how to look just like her is particularly Bergmanesque (and, like many less apt films have been described, Lynchian): the camera is the bathroom mirror, framing Gracie and actress-Gracie in a cozy two-shot as one rubs color on the other’s lips, mouths inches apart, the lens dead still so as not to disturb the mood. In concert with the “gonna kiss?” scintillation, the shot throbs with allusive power: themes of portrayal and reflection, appearances and identity, lust and control; compelling linchpins for a true-crime metanarrative. Another mirror shot that sees Gracie and her reflection flanking Elizabeth on both sides is as technically impressive as it is suggestive. From tasteful film grain to elegant composition, May December, like its forbears, feels like a serious work of formalism.

It also feels, at the exact same time, like a pitch-black cringe comedy about fictionalizing a child sex crime, walking one of the trickiest tonal tightropes you could possibly release on Netflix. Early scenes of Gracie’s day-to-day seem like plain ol’ dramatic realism: the camera tours her Savannah home in the soft light of day, seeing Gracie as but a wife, mother, and neighborhood cakemaker—you’ve met a woman like this; she’s just your friend’s older mom. But the tonal metronome is ready to swing. Gracie opens the fridge, that dramatic minor-key piano leaps in, the camera zooms in on her face and she utters… “I don’t think we have enough hot dogs.”

More than anything, this melodramatic buildup to such a nothing line typifies May December’s humor. It uses subversion and discomfort as tonal bridges, flitting between the unease of dramatic realism (watching a college-age son ask his 30-something dad to be excused from the table is inherently squirmworthy), the shock of Lifetime melodrama (Elizabeth, uh, really gets into the role of lusting after a 13-year-old), and the sheer, winking imprudence of experimenting like this with the Mary Kay Letourneau story. It’s a highbrow, bad-taste satire of any movie that would dramatize these events with a straight face. When Elizabeth is asked why she chose the role, she says “It’s a very complex and human story,” and the line comes off like a joke—like the movie knows it can’t fictionalize the complex and the human without veering into melodrama, so it instead leans into the veer.

Which makes it all the more surprising—and emotionally effective—when the movie is complex and human. At the real heart of the story is Joe, still devoted to Gracie after everything. His character exists apart from the melodrama that Portman and Moore lean into: Charles Melton, a graduate of TV’s Riverdale, gives Joe a tremendously human performance, sublimating decades of pain and doubt into a sensitive manchild shell. The brief moments in which that pain and doubt spill out—before Gracie gaslights him back into silence—are heartrending. It’s an incredibly moving performance, and a crucial factor of this dense, thorny film: push past the tabloids, the drama, the angles and adaptations, the high-minded acknowledgment that we don’t really know these people, and there’s just Vili Fualaau, the real-life victim that December’s Joe is based on. Among all the film’s gambits, hilarious and tense and cringe as they are, its sympathy for Vili might be its best and bravest. May December is a lot of things, but pitiless is never one of them.

★★★★   (4/5)