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“May December” reviewed

The dark and sometimes disturbingly funny new movie May December was inspired by the Letourneau-Fualaau story, though it never mentions them by name. Julianne Moore plays Gracie Atherton-Yoo, who’s in her late 50s, and Charles Melton plays her husband, Joe Yoo, who’s in his 30s. They have three college-age children and a beautiful home in Savannah, Ga., where their close-knit community has long accepted them despite the scandal that broke out when their relationship came to light two decades earlier.

The director Todd Haynes, working from a smart, layered script by Samy Burch, comes at this material from a fascinating angle. A famous TV actor named Elizabeth Berry, played by the famous movie actor Natalie Portman, is set to play Gracie in an independent film. Elizabeth has come to Savannah to do some research by spending time with the couple, who are hoping they’ll be depicted sympathetically. In one scene, Elizabeth attends a barbeque at Gracie and Joe’s house and strikes up a conversation about them with one of their friends, who says what she most loves about Gracie is that she’s an “unapologetic” woman who “always knows what she wants.”

Moore, who gave two of her greatest performances in Haynes’ earlier dramas Safe and Far From Heaven, plays Gracie with an edge of steel and a childlike lisp inspired by Letourneau herself. Although Gracie gives Elizabeth a friendly welcome, over the next few days she turns brittle and a little testy as the actor asks about her and Joe’s relationship. There’s an acid humor to Gracie’s defiance as she refuses to wring her hands over her past misdeeds. In her mind, she and Joe and their kids are a happy and pretty normal family.

But Gracie is clearly deluding herself, and it doesn’t take long for Elizabeth’s presence to drive a wedge between the couple as old, unresolved issues rise to the surface. Melton, best known for the series Riverdale, is quietly revelatory as Joe, a man stuck in a kind of suspended adolescence. We can’t help but notice how closely Joe resembles his teenage kids, not just in appearance but in age. Or how Gracie seems to treat him the way a needy mother might treat her son.

But as messed up as Gracie and Joe are, May December seems to respect them more than it does Elizabeth, who’s clearly working this situation from every possible angle. Portman, doing her best and subtlest work in some time, brilliantly reveals the calculation behind Elizabeth’s polite smiles and gently probing questions. Haynes clearly loves actors, but he isn’t afraid to show how callous and even monstrous some of them can be in pursuit of their art. He’s also critiquing the endless appetite for sensationalized, ripped-from-the-headlines stories and the industry’s willingness to feed it.