Producers: Natalie Portman, Sophie Mas, Christine Vachon, Pamela Koffler, Grant S. Johnson, Tyler W. Konney, Jessica Elbaum, Will Ferrell   Director: Todd Haynes   Screenplay: Samy Burch   Cast: Natalie Portman, Julianne Moore, Charles Melton, Cory Michael Smith, Elizabeth Yu, Gabriel Chung, Piper Curda, D.W. Moffet, Lawrence Arancio, Joan Reilly and Charles Green  Distributor: Netflix

Grade: A-

The contemporary obsession with true crime podcasts and dramatizations is satirically skewered by Todd Fields in “May December.”  The script by Samy Burch is inspired by the case of Mary Kay Latourneau, the thirty-five year old Washington State teacher who pleaded guilty to the rape of a child for her sexual relationship with a twelve-year old student in her sixth-grade class. (She had two children with him and they married after her release from prison.)  The case became a national sensation in the late nineties.

But “May December” isn’t actually about Latourneau and her “victim” Vili Fualaau.  Instead it uses their relationship, and the publicity furor it caused, as a model to explore the inner realities of such cases and the fascination they carry.  When the film begins, Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore) and her husband Joe Yoo (Charles Melton) are living as an ostensibly happy couple in Savannah, Georgia more than twenty years after the affair that drew public attention and condemnation.  (Here it commenced not at school, but in the storage room of a pet shop where both worked.)  Their oldest daughter Honor (Piper Curda) is already off at college, and her younger siblings Mary (Elizabeth Yu) and Charlie (Gabriel Chung) are about to graduate from high school.

Into their lives comes Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman), a popular TV actress preparing to star in an “independent film” about their story.  She’s arranged to spend some time with the family to prepare for playing Gracie in a supposedly honest but empathetic way.  Gracie and Joe welcome her, and she’ll talk with them and their children, as well as others in their circle, like Gracie’s first husband Tom Atherton (D.W. Moffett); Georgie (Cory Michael Smith), her son by that first marriage; Gracie’s lawyer Morris Sperber (Lawrence Arancio); Sperber’s wife Lydia (Joan Reilly); and even Mr. Henderson (Charles Green), the proprietor of the now-infamous pet shop.

Haynes and Burch, a casting director turned feature screenwriter, don’t opt for an obvious comic tone in depicting the effect of the star’s visit on the family.  Instead they contrive a troubling, somber study, but one shot through with dark, edgy humor that sneaks up on you.  The result is funny, unsettling and poignant by turns, but still feeling all of a piece rather than a disjointed composite. Thus when Elizabeth arrives, it’s in the middle of a cookout Gracie and Joe are hosting.  It seems festive, but a box is delivered that tells of the continuing harassment of the couple, and though there are quite a few guests, Sperber will later acknowledge that their supporters in town are relatively few, and they remain, generally speaking, pariahs. 

And while Gracie and Joe put on a happy public front, their relationship is beset with difficulties.  She’s a domineering sort whose attention to detail reveals her controlling streak, and whose fragility beneath the surface is demonstrated when an order for one of the elegant cakes she bakes and sells is abruptly cancelled.  Joe, by contrast, is subdued and considerate; supporting the family as an x-ray technician, he has a hobby raising Monarch butterflies, an endangered species, and releasing them when they’re grown.  The implication is obvious.

As for Elizabeth, she exudes empathy for Gracie and Joe, but it’s her ambition to use the bio-project to win recognition as a serious actress that’s clearly paramount.  Her willingness to push boundaries is often unsettling—when she visits the pet store, she presses the uneasy owner to leave her alone in the storage room where Gracie and Joe made love (and imagines their passion), and when she addresses Mary’s drama class, she responds to a question about doing sex scenes with unbecoming openness.  But her determination to “get inside” the Gracie-Joe relationship becomes abundantly clear only when she finds herself alone with him in her hotel room.  Of course, the scene is revealing about Joe’s attitude as well. 

Gracie, of course, is not fooled, and the gamesmanship between the two women is riveting, particularly as played by actors of the quality of Moore and Portman.   The former’s reactions to the latter’s effusive exhibitions of interest in her are priceless, as are the latter’s suppressed disinterest in biographical details that won’t be part of her performance playbook; Haynes and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt outdo themselves in a couple of scenes—one in a restaurant, one in a shop where Mary in trying on graduation gowns—in which they employ mirrors to draw a knife-edge divide between the two.  And though Elizabeth might believe that she’s found a slam dunk in Georgie, a wild-eyed singer in a local band who offers to tell all, for a price, it turns out in the end that his belief that Gracie ruined his life is shakier than it seems.

But while Portman and Moore undoubtedly dominate the film, Melton’s turn as a man hobbled by undefinable longings and insecurity is no less impressive.  His quiet, diffident manner suggests that the child he was when he and Gracie first met is still there in his thirty-six year old body, and a rooftop conversation with Charlie reinforces the idea.  The supporting cast excels as well, all contributing to a situation that comes across as pervasively uncomfortable for everyone.                      

As is usual in Haynes’s films, “May December” is carefully wrought in technical terms, with Sam Lisenco’s production design and April Napier’s costumes unobtrusively right, as is Affonso Gonçalves’ smooth, unhurried editing.  By adapting Michel Legrand’s music for Joseph Losey’s “The Go-Between,” Marcelo Zarvos’ score emphasizes the roots of the film in the classical melodramas to which the writer-director paid homage in his remarkable “Far From Heaven” back in 2002.  If the new film doesn’t quite match that earlier one, it comes very close.