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May December Review – Exploitation, Consumption and Façades

From Jeffrey Dahmer to Jack the Ripper, society has a fascination with evil in entertainment, there’s something about packaging the monstrous into media that seems to captivate an audience. Todd Haynes’ latest melodrama, May December, draws inspiration from the Mary Kay Letourneau and Vili Fualaau case and shifts the spotlight to another despicable act: statuary rape of a child.

At first glance, Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore) and Joe Yoo (Charles Melton) are a conventional yet subversive suburban couple; young working father, older stay-at-home mother, three children, two Irish Setters, a May-December romance of sorts; a perfect modern-day white picket fence. A second look and further inspection shatters the illusion, all is not what it seems; back in 1992, a 36-year-old Gracie groomed a 13-year-old Joe when they both worked at a pet store, leading to her first pregnancy, her arrest and making national news.

Opening in 2015, Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman), a TV actress starring in a film based on Gracie visits the couple in their Georgian home to observe and learn more about the woman she will have to personate to deliver a phenomenal performance. Gracie is thrilled that a film is being made and that with it, the public will get to truly understand beyond the controversy, the loving relationship she and Joe have. However, as Elizabeth carries on her research, the façade starts to crack, showing the ugliness behind the smiles and regurgitations, questions start to rear their heads: how has this relationship evolved 23 years since it begun? What is real and what is an act?

There are several themes present in May December and Samy Burch does an exquisite job in conveying them in the screenplay, from layered dialogue to captivating scene directions. Exploitation, consumption, and façades are the central intersecting themes in this film and how these touch on society’s attitudes towards abhorrent acts is fascinating to watch.

Exploitation is the prominent theme in May December, both Elizabeth and Gracie are presented as exploiters, Gracie more so than the former in the beginning, aside from the fact that Elizabeth is playing Gracie in an upcoming film, Burch hints to the audience the similarities they share by having Gracie comment on how she and Elizabeth are the same height to which she responds they are “basically the same”. This excellent use of foreshadowing makes the upcoming scenes more devasting when examining the film.

Gracie’s exploitative nature is obvious from the start, she is a woman who took advantage of a child, became a constant in his life when she became pregnant and since then has continued to manipulate him throughout their relationship. The layers of Gracie’s manipulations are inserted in much of her dialogue, an excellent example that showcases these layers is when she talks about the Yoo family being the only Koreans in the neighbourhood. There is an air of othering in how she frames this which connects to how she was able to groom Joe. Being the ‘odd one out’ meant Joe had very few confidants and he later says that Gracie “saw [him]”, as a child in a new environment having an adult notice you in your entirety is reassuring; this acknowledgment paired with his isolation were instrumental in Gracie’s grooming, it meant there was less chance of him telling anyone about the relationship. This othering bleeds into the way some adults view non-white children; Joe being half-Korean leads to an adultification bias.

Gracie talks about the ample maturity he had for his young age while she was sheltered and his ability to become a caretaker and the man of the house after his mother’s untimely death, she highlights that while she had only been with Tom (D.W. Moffett), her ex-husband, Joe had been with two girls prior to their relationship. This being said about a 13-year-old boy shows how she justifies her actions to herself at face value by distorting aspects of Joe and making herself an acquiescent participant, this is made easier as she had already othered him before the grooming began.

Naïveté is another exploitative tool Gracie uses; she prides herself in it, “in a way it’s been a gift,” she says, wearing it as a badge of honour and her being soft-spoken lends a hand into making it believable on the surface. When Elizabeth talks to others while researching Gracie, her immoral actions are clearly acknowledged, however there is an air of gentleness in how those who know her intimately speak about her. It is important to note that no women are part of these conversations Elizabeth has, the projected sense of ignorance is presented by men in Gracie’s life. Her soft demeanour aids in her perception by playing on the stereotypical aspects of femininity that obtain patriarchal approval, which she uses to her advantage and contributed to how she was able to groom Joe when he was a child and how she is still able to maintain control over him in adulthood.

When she is introduced, Elizabeth talks about how “complex and human” the story of Gracie and Joe is, it seems as though she may have taken the role and decided to visit the Yoo family to better understand how someone could do something so vile, we quickly realise that is not the case. To Elizabeth, Joe’s trauma and Gracie’s callous nature are merely foundations for her future, she is interested in this tragedy only because of the potential praise and accolades she will garner for playing a controversial character, something real world actors do. She inserts herself into their lives to ensure she transforms into a copy and not a caricature of Gracie, throughout May December she starts to mirror Gracie in her everyday life, from her tone to her diction and to a sinister degree, her interactions with boys, which we observe during her visit to Mary’s (Elizabeth Yu) high school and her comments on how the child actor for Joe needs to be sexier. The trauma is a tale to Elizabeth, a tantalising tale of the taboo, as we see when she goes to the pet store to assess the room the grooming first took place, only to have her imagine and simulate how the sexual acts may have occurred.

Elizabeth goes even further with her exploitation by attempting to reconstruct the traumatic events, commenting on how her visit to Joe’s workplace feels as though they are “sneaking around” and she seems to now “have an idea of what it must have felt like”, she laughs this off as though she uttered a joke. She carries on with this by deliberately flirting with Joe, leading to the pair having sex when she invites him into her room to fix her nebuliser. It is a hurried scene, the framing removing any aspect of intimacy and when the deed is done, Joe wonders whether she liked him and what the sex was about to which she responds, “This is what grown-ups do.” The choice of words is deliberate, not only to showcase the callousness but also to highlight what Elizabeth imagines could have been the interaction Gracie and Joe shared the first time it happened, it’s why she uses “grown-ups” and not adults as though she is interacting with a child who just performed a task foreign to them.

Once he leaves, she immediately gets back to her work, and in Gracie’s voice, reads a love letter Gracie had given Joe when he was a child. While Joe had perceived their developing relationship as genuine, to Elizabeth it was merely a study, and he was the oblivious participant in the subtle recreation of his trauma, all for her to fully immerse herself in her role.

Consumption exists in its several forms in May December, all extending from Gracie: from her consuming parts of her loved ones to the end-goal of both her vocation and avocation being consumption.

Gracie’s ability to exploit those around her allows her to consume aspects of them, the most glaring example being her husband, Joe. The emotional and psychological trauma inflicted on him due to Gracie’s grooming deprived him of a childhood and derailed his emotional development. Joe is presented as an emotionally stunted individual, throughout May December we see how difficult it is for him to properly express himself and vocalise his thoughts, and in scenes where there is anger and fear, he comes off as though he is having a tantrum or being reprimanded. This arrested psychological development plays a role in how Joe views Gracie, a woman who has been attached to him for the past 23 years. When Elizabeth indicates that he could start over, he sorrowfully asks, “And do what?” Joe has no idea of a life sans Gracie, she has consumed so much of him that like his past and present, his future cannot function without her involvement.

Her children also have parts of themselves chipped off; with Mary being the one we primarily focus on in a scene where she is trying on dresses for her graduation. Gracie commends her for showing her arms when she dons a white, sleeveless one, commenting on how she seems to “not care about these unrealistic beauty standards”, Mary then opts for a dress that covers her arms. Whether she is fully aware of her words, the harm Gracie inflicts still stands, she consumes and destroys her daughter’s self-esteem and by framing it as a compliment, she absolves herself, just as she did with Honor (Piper Curda), her eldest, when she gifted her a scale for her high school graduation, which she states is a tradition started by her mother. As evident with Honor, once people escape from Gracie’s orbit, they can properly reflect on her treatment and understand how damaging it is.

Gracie loves to hunt, it is a pastime passed to her by her father, and she does it, “all the time”. With this hobby, Gracie transforms into a predator, preying on the weak to slaughter and consume, reflecting her predatory relationship with Joe, who she preyed on when he was his most vulnerable and essentially killed his childhood. Due to being on the sex offenders’ registry, Gracie’s only form of income comes from her baking for a select group of people. Just like hunting, baking ends with consumption, goods are created with care to be briefly admired and devoured, mirroring Gracie’s interactions with her children, individuals she has helped create only to destroy aspects of who they are as they age.  

While consumption, destruction and exploitation are at the core of Gracie’s identity and activities, Joe’s serves as a clear contrast with care, fixation, and nurture. His career lies in the health services, a profession that requires care and represents the role he plays in his family, both as an adult and a child. This care provides the foundation for fixation, not just of objects as we are made aware with his interest in fix-it programmes but of people, like Gracie. It is one of the reasons he is uncertain of his future as he partly believes she would not be able to cope if he left. His nurturing disposition is evident not only with his interactions with his children, who are far more comfortable and engaging with him than with Gracie, but also his pastime of raising monarch caterpillars, whose population is currently declining. While these traits are positive, due to being tethered to Gracie, they regularly function to serve her.

All three characters wear façades, for various reasons, and as the film progresses these either crack or shatter, allowing the audience to gaze upon the ugly truths. Elizabeth and Gracie, due to their nature, wear masks that bear similar shades. To exploit, both women must present themselves as non-threatening as possible. In the case of Elizabeth, she utilises her fame and inquisitiveness to create a persona that seems genuinely interested in exploring the complexities of the couple to showcase on screen, however we observe just how disingenuous she truly is.

Gracie’s façade has tones of naiveté and confidence, two traits that should cancel each other but do not with her as she employs them in different situations. She tries to appear as a woman confident with her life choices and naïve to the insidious nature of her marriage, but with Elizabeth’s presence her façade must crack as she now must use both tricks simultaneously and because they cannot co-exist, it’s maddening for her. She grows irritated with Elizabeth’s lingering presence and continuous questioning since she must face aspects of herself she would rather not to maintain her sense of a perfect life.

The audience is already aware of Gracie’s feigned naïveté, and the love letter Joe provides Elizabeth reinforces the malicious and manipulative face that hides behind it, asking a 13-year-old to keep a predatory relationship a secret and burn the evidence after reading highlights how methodical Gracie was with her abuse, a departure from how she continuously tries to present it as love fuelled by fortuitousness.

Joe’s façade primarily exists due to his childhood trauma and as a means of self-preservation, when speaking with Elizabeth he reinforces that he “wanted it” and was never a victim of Gracie’s regardless of public opinion. Framing his relationship as a conscious choice allows for deniability of abuse, for to acknowledge it would mean to realise how devasting his situation truly is. Elizabeth’s intrusion causes a shift, as she becomes an outsider looking in, Joe consciously for the first time becomes an insider looking out, forced to see its disturbing nature.

The metamorphosis of the monarchs plays a significant role, becoming emblematic of his state of mind, his mask. The first act of the film has the egg and larvae stages; Joe, while subconsciously aware of the true nature of his relationship, consciously evades confronting it and eluding questions that bring it into focus. The pupae stage has him vocalising his opinions about his situation in a different context, evidently when speaking to his son, Charlie (Gabriel Chung) while smoking, he isn’t sure whether they are “connecting or if [he’s] creating a bad memory”, at this point, he is essentially easing himself into acknowledgement. The night before graduation and the adult stage sees Joe finally confronting Gracie on the dynamics of their relationship and its inception. He never accuses her of anything malicious, in fact his line of questioning focuses primarily on understanding the reason their relationship began, asking “if we’re really in love as we say we are, shouldn’t I be able to talk about this with you?” and “What if I wasn’t ready to be making those kinds of decisions?” Gracie immediately goes into attack mode, gaslighting him, stating, “You seduced me. Who was in charge? Who was the boss?”, berating and trying to shift the responsibility to him to distort the power dynamics that were and still are present in their relationship.

The final scene with Joe has him in tears as he watches his twins graduate, it’s one of the few scenes he has on his own, signifying a period of introspection. As the scene progresses, Joe’s features quickly shift from pride to sorrow, his children will now be able to escape Gracie’s sphere however it will also be the first time he’s alone with Gracie since the initial abuse. There is a sense of relief and dread present, and the audience ponders on whether he will stay in a marriage conscious of how truly heinous it is or leave and create a future free of Gracie’s influence. He ends with a sigh, shut eyes and a smile and the viewer can only hope that he takes the optimistic route.

In May December, everyone is performing, consciously or otherwise, elements of the truth are given to the audience early on however due to the guises the characters opt to wear, it only becomes more noticeable once the viewer is given room to discern what is acting and what is authentic.

Haynes builds up on Burch’s screenplay with his finesse, the mise-en-scène illustrates the similarities between Elizabeth and Gracie, these two are regularly presented in close proximity to each other when they share a scene, this blocking amplifies the visual storytelling, Joe on the other hand is sometimes placed opposite of these two whether he is sharing a scene with one or both, and if they are close, the postures the actors adopt create a separation. May December is recognised as a dark comedy drama, a placement that feels odd due to the core topic of the film, its main comedic elements stem from its score, grandiose pieces that cut through scenes with their loud instrumentals, seemingly to give significance to a scene only for it to lack it entirely and be quotidian. This is purposefully done; and it is comedic due to its absurdity, another interpretation, leaning more into the seriousness, focuses on the sinister elements of the score; having menacing music over the mundane highlights the inescapable harm that has been and is being inflicted by Gracie, it’s no coincidence that her scene is the first to have this conflicting style.

It's not shocking that both Portman and Moore are exceptional in this film, able to play off each other and beautifully showcase the power struggle between Elizabeth and Gracie not just with dialogue but with expressions. Portman shows the cold and calculating character of Elizabeth brilliantly with how she can detach from and dive into the lives of the Yoo family. The quiet destructiveness of Gracie is played with impeccable skill by Moore who brilliantly evokes the tactics utilised by the predatory women who have inspired her character. It is Melton, the heart of the film that stands out, being able to portray a man who has been stunted to such a degree that everyday interactions present themselves as gruelling tasks, his relationship with his children a prime example, with his mannerisms allowing for the relationship to feel less paternal and more fraternal, highlighting the severity of his character’s trauma.

May December analyses societal obsession with true crime, society has commodified crime and made it consumable; from filtering it through film to packaging it into podcasts and print. There is a level of desensitization when it comes to how real-world tragedies are communicated to an audience, the slight distortions some need to undergo to transform into thrilling tales. The audience gets to observe these crimes with little to no regard to the suffering inflicted on the victims. When the credits roll up and the parting phrases are spoken, they can remove themselves from the situation and carry on with their lives, as shown with Elizabeth as she delves into the transgression.

As the film unfolds, the audience, like Elizabeth is increasingly interested in prying further into the lives of characters who have had traumatic experiences. Haynes rightfully does not utilise flashbacks, the crime is never shown to the audience nor is a graphic account given to Elizabeth, and due to its nature, it becomes an uncomfortable situation for the viewer to imagine and therefore avoided. However not for Elizabeth, like the tabloids in May December and real-world media, sensationalism and exploitation must prevail, whether it lies in fabricated or exaggerated events. In the end, Elizabeth’s imitation falls short, she simply becomes a parody of Gracie; her lisp is too strong, the aesthetics of the scene fail to match the true event and the addition of unnecessary props like the snake pulls it into salacious territory. Even if it is “getting more real” for her, the need to embellish the offence removes all trace of authenticity.

To an extent, May December critiques itself, it is after all a film that draws inspiration from a real tragedy, utilising elements from the crime to tell its story, however it avoids the pitfalls of the genre it is truly critiquing as although the primary viewpoint is from Elizabeth, a character who exemplifies the media, the film makes room for Joe’s trauma and struggles without trivialising his rape and morphing his abuse into an award, a common route in the entertainment industry.

The horror of May December lies not just with Gracie’s crime and its aftermath, sinking its teeth into those directly and indirectly involved, specifically Joe; but also, Elizabeth’s insouciance and willingness to sensationalise a tragedy. Haynes uses these three characters to pull the themes of the film together and present a mirror to the audience, allowing them to ponder on how crimes, be it murder, theft or rape are mutated into entertainment pieces.

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