With many films ripped from the tabloid scandal, such as “I, Tonya,” the filmmakers approach a kind of snatchy cinematic tabloid energy while playing with the public image of the infamous subject. In this way, it’s exciting to watch, even if it falls short of finding interesting psychological layers or ambiguities.
“May, December” succeeds with a destabilizingly different approach. Director Todd Haynes and screenwriter Samy Burch base their fictional story on a true story: that of a middle school teacher. Mary Kay Letourneau He was found guilty of second-degree rape of a sixth-grade student who was 12 when the abuse began. Both real-life parties, Letourneau and Vili Fualaau, used words other than “rape” to rationalize a 22-year relationship that included two children together, Letourneau being sentenced to many years in prison, and eventually a separation in 2019. A year before Letourneau’s death.
Loosely inspired by these events, “May December” goes its own way and adds a major dramatic complication. Julianne Moore plays the fictional Gracie, who is married with children and also has children from a previous marriage. In this reworking, the scandal begins in a pet store where Gracie works with Joe, played as an adult by Charles Melton in Haynes’ film. In the film’s present time period, Joe is in his mid-30s; Gracie is 25 years older than him. They live in Savannah, Georgia, and we learn that a biopic (a second one) about Gracie and Joe’s saga is in the works.
Natalie Portman plays Elizabeth, the hugely famous actress who plays Gracie. Gracie arrives in Savannah at the beginning of “May December” in anger and on a research trip after arranging to spend time with Joe and their children in unusually close quarters.
Elizabeth’s capacity for manipulation and self-absorption becomes apparent in a testy, dangerous phone conversation with her ostensible fiancee. When we get to know Gracie, we see that she, too, has created a life full of instincts for manipulation and control.
As Elizabeth mutters one minute, insinuates herself with icy coldness the next, Haynes and co play the script’s machinations for equal parts sly black comedy and poignancy, the way it escalates into sudden anguish. At one point, Gracie, who is semi-busy with her life baking cakes for friends and neighbors, becomes angry when an order is cancelled.
Of course, there’s more: He knows Joe is spending time with the person who came between them. Stanislavski wrote the book “An Actor Prepares”; “May December” takes this a step further, as Elizabeth draws from a playbook that might be called “An Actor Prepares Ruthlessly,” and her research turns into a form of vampirism.
There are scenes that actually sting, like a clothes shopping scene (one of Gracie’s daughters is graduating high school) that Gracie and Moore turn into a master class in damaged parent undermining. Meanwhile, Elizabeth takes mental notes for her own interpretative purposes. There’s a layer of homage at work throughout “May December,” as Haynes and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt evoke the framing and cutting strategies of Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona” and “Winter Light,” among others.
Some of it falters, especially when Haynes hits a joke too hard: At one point, Gracie opens the refrigerator door and takes a long, worrying pause before finishing with a line about not having enough hot dogs for the cookout. Marcelo Zarvos’ musical score is here and echoes the swooning (and mentioned) Michel Legrand theme from “The Go-Between” throughout. It’s a bold choice, but the romantic lather has a way of softening the twisted edges of this story.
But there are minor issues when it comes to performances as good as Moore and Portman’s. Yes, “May December” exists in a disturbing world. Haynes isn’t afraid of this, and American films are better for it.
“May December” — 3.5 stars (out of 4)
MPA rating: R (for some sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and language)
Running time: 1:57
How to watch: Premieres will be released in limited release on November 17; Streaming on Netflix starting December 1
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.