Two-thirds of the way through May December, the latest melodrama from Portland filmmaker Todd Haynes, an actress played by Natalie Portman sits in front of a high school drama class. Portman’s Elizabeth Berry—snake-eyed, subdued, pathologically brunette—has risen to fame as the star of a trashy TV drama, but she’s in Georgia preparing to shoot a new film about a scandalous local woman (played by Julianne Moore) that she hopes will launch her into more rarefied circles. When one of the students asks why Elizabeth would want to play someone so unsavory, she smiles and replies, “It’s the moral gray areas that are interesting, right?” 

So go the problems and pleasures of May December. When I caught an early screening at New York Film Festival in September, a festival programmer noted in her brief introduction that she believed an NYC audience would be “willing and eager” to engage with something so “morally complicated.” It was difficult not to feel disheartened by this framing, which seemed to offer a shortcut to meaning, in place of actual engagement with the film. “Here’s the work of a vibrant auteur starring two of our most formidable actresses,” it appeared to say. “Congrats in advance for not narcing on it!”

To that programmer’s credit, May December is built on one of the more stomach-turning tabloid scandals of the 1990s. It remixes the real-life story of Seattle-area teacher Mary Kay Letorneau, who was arrested in 1997 after carrying on a sexual relationship with one of her sixth grade students. Letorneau birthed the boy’s children while she was in jail, then married him upon her release; the pair fell out shortly before her death in 2020 from breast cancer. In Haynes’s hands, Mary Kay Letorneau becomes Gracie Atherton Yoo, an ash-blonde Julianne Moore with a wandering lisp and a menacing aura.

Gracie and her husband, Joe (Riverdale’s Charles Melton), have established a steady—if stilted—suburban existence on an island off the coast of Savannah, Georgia, with their youngest children about to head to college. Small potatoes for some, but quite the accomplishment for them, considering that 24 years ago, a married, 36-year-old Gracie went to prison for sleeping with a 13-year-old Joe, whom she met while working at an aquarium supply store.

By the summer of 2015, when the film is set, most of the Atherton Yoos’s friends and neighbors have piped down about the scandal, even if they haven’t forgotten it. (In an early scene, Gracie finds a bag of feces on their back porch and notes how long it’s been since she’s seen one.) Then Portman’s Elizabeth Berry comes to town, and the Persona games begin. Elizabeth has been cast in a highbrow studio flick about Gracie and Joe, and she’s come to observe her real-life subjects before shooting begins. What starts as research—Elizabeth wants to understand Gracie, study her mannerisms, get “as close as possible to the truth” of her—morphs into thorny, psychosexual gladiating.

Elizabeth’s methods quickly blow past eyebrow-raising. Gracie is grateful for the opportunity to control her narrative, but would prefer nobody look too closely at her floundering, home bakery business or plastic chandeliers. Joe’s long-held certainties about his agency and lack of victimhood start to crack, and he’s seized by a flood of emotions he never learned how to process.

It’s head-spinningly rich material, and Haynes gets a lot out of it. The mood, at first, is difficult to discern. Then, not five minutes in, there’s a crash zoom on Gracie as she glances in her fridge before concluding, with horror, “I don’t think we have enough hot dogs.”

Tonal friction seems to be at least part of the point. Throughout, Haynes lays a hilariously overblown string-and-piano score over ill-fitting moments, as if to highlight the absurd, operatic emotional rivers running beneath Gracie and Joe’s niceties.

We laugh at Moore’s high-camp predator, then gulp back tears when Melton’s man-child weeps with grief for his stolen youth. Haynes throws black comedy, ’90s erotic thriller sleaze, and overlit daytime television into an aesthetic blender, emerging with something like Paul Verhoeven’s stab at a Harold Pinter adaptation of a Lifetime movie. It feels weird. It is weird. Who does Elizabeth think she is, trying to reduce this boundless tragedy to Oscar-baity, Hollywoodized “truth”? Who, for that matter, does Haynes?

And there’s the rub. For all of May December’s pleasures—and they are considerable, from knockout performances (particularly from Melton, who deserves serious awards consideration) to delicious dialogue and devilish plot twists—its own frail self-concept prevents it from becoming a classic.

It’s a movie about how movies are incapable of depicting the things they try to depict, and when it realizes that, it retreats into thudding symbolism and noncommittal ambiguity instead of pushing through to deliver new insight. The thrill of its unstable style gets undercut by a too-obvious subplot about Joe’s obsession with turning caterpillars into butterflies (get it?), and its final moments forego a crescendo in favor of a polite restatement of previously established themes. By the time the credits roll, what once felt potentially groundbreaking has settled for merely “morally complicated.”

And there are far worse fates. If I’m going to watch an ouroboros, I’ll take one helmed by someone as curious and literate as Todd Haynes. Though May December doesn’t rank with the director’s top-tier achievements—it lacks the sublimity of Carol, the mad invention of I’m Not There, the elemental force of Safe—its intelligence and staying power are tough to discredit.

It really is one of the thorniest, most thought-provoking movies you’ll see this year. But it’s difficult not to walk away feeling like the film itself is as stunted as Melton’s man-child, thrust into the public eye before it was allowed to reach maturity on its own terms.

May December begins playing at Landmark's Crest Cinema Center on Fri Nov 17. It begins streaming on Netflix on Fri Dec 1.