May December is a 2023 American drama film directed by Todd Haynes from a screenplay by Samy Burch, based on a story by Burch and Alex Mechanik. Loosely inspired by the story of Mary Kay Letourneau, the film follows an actress (Natalie Portman) who travels to Georgia to meet and study the life of the controversial woman (Julianne Moore) she is set to play in a film—the woman being infamous for her 23-year-long relationship with her husband (Charles Melton), whom she first met when he was 13 years old.
The film was announced in June 2021, with Portman and Moore joining the cast. Filming took place in mid-2022 around Savannah, Georgia. It premiered at the 76th Cannes Film Festival on May 20, 2023, where the North American distribution rights were bought by Netflix.
May December was released in select theaters in the United States on November 17, 2023, before streaming on Netflix on December 1, and received critical acclaim.
In 2015, actress Elizabeth Berry arrives in Savannah, Georgia, to research her upcoming role in an independent film as Gracie Atherton-Yoo. Gracie was at the center of a nationwide tabloid scandal in 1992 when, at 36, she was caught having sex with 13-year-old Joe Yoo, a schoolmate of her son Georgie, at the pet store where she and Joe worked. Gracie served a prison sentence, during which she gave birth to Joe’s child, and was made to register as a sex offender in Georgia. Twenty-three years later, however, Gracie and Joe are married with three children: Honor, who is at college, and twins Charlie and Mary who are about to graduate high school.
Elizabeth has several conversations with Gracie and Joe about the start of their relationship and takes detailed notes on Gracie’s upbringing and lifestyle. The couple are initially optimistic that the film will correct the public perception of their relationship, while Charlie and Mary seem more skeptical. Elizabeth also speaks with Gracie’s first husband and her son Georgie, now a musician. Visiting the pet store where the couple met and worked, Elizabeth learns from the owner that Gracie specifically requested the owner hire a part-time assistant. Elizabeth sees the stock room where Gracie and Joe were caught having sex and simulates the sexual act alone.
As Elizabeth attends more family events leading up to the twins’ high school graduation, she expresses her attraction to Joe to a colleague. Joe, meanwhile, engages in a private text conversation with Michaela, a friend from a Facebook group dedicated to his hobby of rearing monarch butterflies. At one point, Joe proposes they take a holiday together, but she rebuffs him by reminding him that he is married. He expresses apprehension to his father about what life will be like with Gracie once all their children have left home.
Shortly before graduation, Elizabeth leads a Q&A at a drama class at the twins’ high school. With Mary in the class, Elizabeth declares her love for playing morally ambiguous characters. Mary is visibly offended. Elizabeth drives her home after the class, and Mary rushes from the car without speaking.
The night before graduation, Elizabeth accompanies the family – including Honor, who is visiting from college – to dinner at a restaurant. Honor says she wishes Elizabeth would not portray her mother in a film and criticizes her for spending so much time with the family. In the bathroom, Gracie suggests Joe drop Elizabeth off to allow the kids to calm down. While waiting for her ride, Georgie proposes that Elizabeth get him a job as a music supervisor on the film, in exchange for him providing details about Gracie’s life. He indicates that Gracie was sexually abused by her brothers growing up, saying he read this in her diary. He tells Elizabeth not to reveal this to Gracie as Elizabeth leaves, visibly disturbed.
Joe drives Elizabeth to her rented accommodation. Under the pretense of needing help with her nebulizer, she invites Joe to her room. He gives her a letter that Gracie wrote to him early in their relationship. The two have sex, initiated by her. Afterwards, she tells him that he still has time to start a new life without Gracie, but he insists Gracie would not be able to move on. When Elizabeth refers to Joe and Gracie’s life together as a “story”, he leaves in anger.
Returning home and unable to sleep, Joe tearfully confronts Gracie about the start of their relationship, worrying that he was too young to consent. Gracie asserts that it was he who seduced her and that he was in control. Elizabeth uses the letter given to her by Joe to practice her performance as Gracie as a monologue. The end of the letter reveals that Gracie asked Joe to burn it after reading it.
On the morning of graduation, one of Joe’s butterflies has emerged from its chrysalis. Later, the whole family watch Charlie and Mary graduate, as Elizabeth takes photos from the crowd and Joe weeps alone at the edge of the crowd. Elizabeth and Gracie say goodbye. Gracie denies the story of abuse by her brothers that Georgie told Elizabeth, saying he invented it due to his own insecurity.
On the set of the film based on Gracie and Joe’s relationship, Elizabeth films multiple takes of the scene where she sees Gracie seducing Joe in the pet store stockroom. While the director is satisfied, she asks to film another take, insisting that the scene is “getting more real.”
- Natalie Portman as Elizabeth Berry
- Julianne Moore as Gracie Atherton-Yoo
- Charles Melton as Joe Yoo
- Cory Michael Smith as Georgie
- Elizabeth Yu as Mary Atherton-Yoo
- Gabriel Chung as Charlie Atherton-Yoo
- Piper Curda as Honor Atherton-Yoo
- D. W. Moffett as Tom Atherton
- Lawrence Arancio as Morris Sperber
In June 2021, it was announced that Portman and Moore were cast in the film. In September 2022, Melton was added to the cast. In January 2023, it was reported Piper Curda, Elizabeth Yu and Gabriel Chung had joined the cast of the film.
Principal photography took place in Savannah, Georgia, and wrapped after 23 days in November 2022. Edward Lachman was initially going to serve as cinematographer but was replaced by Christopher Blauvelt due to Lachman’s hip injury. The script, which is set in Savannah, was originally set in Camden, Maine.
Marcelo Zarvos’ score for the film is an adaptation and re-orchestration of Michel Legrand’s music for The Go-Between. Haynes originally played Legrand’s score on set and during editing for inspiration until eventually the team “ended up embracing so many aspects of the original score that Marcelo adapted and added original music to it and then re-orchestrated it.” Legrand’s name was credited along with Zarvos.
Haynes said the film is partly inspired by the Ingmar Bergman films Persona (1966) and Winter Light (1963).
In February 2023, Sky Cinema acquired the UK distribution rights. The film was selected to compete for the Palme d’Or at the 76th Cannes Film Festival, where it premiered on May 20, 2023. In May 2023, Netflix acquired the North American distribution rights at the Marché du Film for $11 million. The film also screened as the “Opening Night Film” at the 2023 New York Film Festival on September 29.
The film was released in select theaters in the United States on November 17, 2023, before streaming on Netflix in the U.S. and Canada on December 1, 2023. It is scheduled to be released by Sky Cinema in the United Kingdom on December 8, 2023.
May December received critical acclaim. On the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, 92% of 215 critics’ reviews are positive, with an average rating of 8/10. The website’s consensus reads: “Swaddling its difficult fact-based story in a blanket of campy humor, May December is a seductively discomforting watch.” Metacritic, which uses a weighted average, assigned the film a score of 85 out of 100, based on 48 critics, indicating “universal acclaim”.
In his review of the film following its premiere at Cannes, Peter Debruge of Variety called May December an “endlessly fascinating movie” and added “As layered and infinitely open-to-interpretation as any of [Haynes’] films, it’s also the most generous and direct […] The potential for passion, transformation and subversion hangs heavy in the air”. David Ehrlich of IndieWire described the film as “a heartbreakingly sincere piece of high camp that teases real human drama from the stuff of tabloid sensationalism”, and praised Melton for delivering “a well-modulated and eventually rather moving performance”, as well as Moore for her “predictable sensational, soft-hard performance”. The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw found the film “amusing and elegant […] delivered with a cool, shrewd precision by Todd Haynes” and described Portman and Moore’s performances as containing “a potent frenmity”.
Bilge Ebiri of Vulture described May December as “very funny and light on its feet, but also a deeply uncomfortable movie”, noting how Haynes “uses the trappings of camp to draw attention to the disconnect between what’s happening onscreen and our response to it”, and concluded: “It feels at times like the director himself [is] looking for the right tone with which to tell this story. He doesn’t know exactly how to feel about all this. So he feels all the things, and makes sure we do, too.”
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