The intellectual faculty of the human mind is as fascinating for its complexity as it is for its unpredictability. With sincere misguidance, provocation, or inconvenience, it can shun the revered structures of moral and ethical foundation, which we pretend to so dearly uphold as the core of society. Accordingly, in the age of post-truth, the media plays a significant role in debilitating these foundations as well, through its all-pervasive influence and ability to distort reality. Todd Haynes’ movie May December examines the media’s responsibility in this regard as the movie takes a closer look at one of the United States’ most notorious, scandalous incidents.
During the late 1990s, the infamous case of an elementary school teacher named Mary Kay Letourneau, created a nationwide furor in USA. The woman had started a physical relationship with a minor, Vili Fualaau, who was a student in her class. Thanks to the media altering the public perception of the case for its own clout, the heinous crime was legitimized in a sense as a ‘loving relationship’, and despite being convicted as a sex offender and serving a prison sentence, Mary Kay was allowed to raise a family with her victim. The unlikely ‘family’ too was the center of public attention for a long time, but for all the wrong reasons as subversion of general consciousness continued to peculiarly romanticize a tragic situation. Indicative of the disparity of such dysfunctional relationships through the very title May December, the movie examines the sordid tale of Mary and Vili (obviously with changed characters) through the experiences of the people involved and introduces an outsider perspective to assess the relationship dynamics. Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore shine as the leads, and their impeccably strong performances help the movie sensibly approach the problematic scenario, all the while critiquing the shallowness of commoditizing human existence.
Why Did Elizabeth Arrive In The Atherton-Yoo Household?
As the movie begins, viewers are taken into the lives of the Atherton-Yoo family through actress Elizabeth Berry, who is visiting them to prepare for her upcoming indie movie venture where she needs to portray the role of family matriarch, Gracie. During the early 90s, a mid-thirties Gracie, mother of four children, was involved in a sex scandal with a preteen Joe Yoo, and they were caught in the act at the pet shop where both of them used to work. Gracie was imprisoned for a significant duration, gave birth to Joe’s child in captivity, and eventually their ‘relationship’ was accepted by society. Two decades later, in the movie’s present timeline in 2015, the unlikely ‘couple’ are married and are parents to three children: Honor, Mary, and Charlie. The Atherton family was in the limelight of media attention for a long period of time and saw a gradual transformation in public perception. With the media’s shameless sensationalization, Gracie’s despicable crime of seducing a minor was subverted into a sympathetic gaze to an ‘unlikely love story’, and in the end, a ‘unique’ southern family. Elizabeth Berry is another ‘agent’ of the all-capitalizing media, for whom Gracie’s ‘complex’ character is a fascinating opportunity to showcase her acting prowess, which is why she is at the Atherton-Yoo household to study Gracie’s family dynamics in close proximity.
On the other hand, the family, especially Gracie, is hoping that Elizabeth’s portrayal in the movie will help her relationship with Joe gain public validation. However, as Elizabeth’s prying gaze continues to peek through the closets, the proverbial skeleton—the disturbing truth buried in the past—gradually makes its presence felt. The family dynamics themselves are in tatters. As a mid-thirties man, Joe has been caught in an arrest of emotional development and cannot wrap his head around the fact that his kids will soon enter a new stage of life as they enter college. With troubling formative years, no wonder he is not mature enough, and now his life is more or less controlled by Gracie at every point in time. His hobby of rearing butterflies is symbolic, as he wishes to fly out but knows the reality of being trapped in the chrysalis formed by Gracie. Gracie’s former marriage life is in shambles as well, and her son, Georgie, who was the same age as Joe, understandably loathes her.
What Did Georgie Share With Elizabeth?
Elizabeth’s desperate attempts to capture Gracie’s mannerism and outlook almost mirror Nina’s attempt to emulate Black Swan (also played by Natalie Portman). Just like the maniacal perfectionist with an amoral approach, Elizabeth’s attempt to reach ‘the truth’—to find the fulcrum that will make her slip into the character that easily—gets gradually disturbing. She goes to the pet store where the infamous incident occurred between Gracie and Joe and simulates having sex, almost as if to get in touch with the moment. The absurdity reaches its height when, after checking out the movie’s audition for Joe’s actors, she suggests the director choose a ‘sexy’ pre-teen matching Joe’s demeanor. Eventually, Elizabeth befriends Joe, pretending to sympathize with him, and Gracie finds Elizabeth getting too close for comfort. She decides to let Elizabeth stick around anyway, and in her own way, she desperately tries to justify her crime using ludicrous excuses.
The day before Charlie and Mary’s graduation, their elder sister, Honor, returns from college, and the Atherton family celebrates together by dining out. Elizabeth is invited as well, which doesn’t sit well with Honor, and she lashes out. Gracie engages in an argument with her daughter, and to make the situation even more awkward than it is, Gracie’s former family, including grandchildren who will be graduating as well, pays a visit to the restaurant. Later, in a conversation with Elizabeth, Georgie implies that Gracie’s sordid past of being sexually abused by her brothers might have contributed to the mental affliction that resulted in the heinous act all those years ago. Elizabeth is shocked, but at the same time, it seems she is satisfied with the fact that the reasoning perfectly fits with her mental mapping of causality—to her, it perfectly explains Gracie’s actions. After all, she has finally gotten the ‘truth’ she was pursuing so desperately. Moreover, initially, Elizabeth had much prejudice about Gracie, which dissipated with time as she ventured deeper into her character study, and therefore, the past abuse seems like legitimate reasoning that caused deep-rooted trauma and the eventual seduction of Joe. Georgie offers to share more scandalous secrets about his mother’s family in exchange for Elizabeth fixing him with a job in the showbiz. However, their conversation is interrupted by the appearance of Joe, who offers to drop Elizabeth off at her rented house.
Did Elizabeth Find Her ‘True’ Moment After All?
As they reach Elizabeth’s place, she invites Joe over. After a brief conversation, Joe hands her a letter that Gracie had sent to him during the early days of their relationship, which details Gracie’s feelings for him, establishing her role as the seducer. Elizabeth makes love with Joe and asks him to seek out a life of his own by moving away from Gracie. Joe, however, is unwilling to do so, and when Elizabeth’s casual, generalizing perspective regarding Joe and Gracie’s ‘relationship’ becomes apparent, Joe furiously leaves. The conversation has rattled him anyway, as later that night, after returning home, he questions Gracie about the legitimacy of their relationship. A dramatic Gracie gaslights Joe, like she has done countless times, into believing that all those years ago it was he who seduced her in the first place and took charge of the situation. On the other hand, Elizabeth practices her role by using Gracie’s letter as monologue, adapting her mannerisms and accents in such a way that their respective differences almost become indistinguishable, both literally and figuratively.
The next day, which is the graduation day for the Atherton-Yoo children, Joe frees a butterfly that has recently hatched from its chrysalis, probably indicating Joe might seek out a future of his own after all by breaking away from the shackle. Gracie goes out to hunt down a trapped fox, which is indicative of her past actions and possibly of her standpoint in the entire situation. As their children receive graduation honors, Gracie is seen in the stands while Joe sheds a tear of joy from afar, which is an indication enough of his future course of life, possibly devoid of Gracie. Elizabeth meets Gracie after the graduation ceremony for one last time, and as she takes her leave, Gracie mentions Georgie’s claims of her being abused as deliberate lies meant only to spite her. Gracie adds that such libelous claims are the product of an insecure mind, something which she is not, which she hopes Elizabeth keeps in mind while playing her character. As Gracie departs, Elizabeth seems embarrassed and dumbfounded; her equation regarding causality, which fell right in place, doesn’t seem to have solid ground anymore. The truth she thought she had attained after all slips away, leaving her in darkness.
As the movie ends, viewers are taken to the set of the movie, where Elizabeth is seen acting as Gracie and enacting the pet store seduction scene with her co-actor, who is playing Joe. In absolute farcical contrast to her meticulous preparation, which indicated the movie to be a rather realistic approach to the sensitive issue, the movie seems to be a cheap, provocative piece aimed to titillate an audience that finds great humor in that sort of perversion. Despite going through a number of retakes, Elizabeth is not satisfied with her acting and is still trying to find the right moment. Viewers are hit with the feeling that everything that transpired was a mockery of a tragic reality. The ending conveys the core message of the movie: how human experiences are often belittled for the sake of art. It both criticizes the despicable attempts of the media and forms a meta-statement about the movie itself.