May December and the very real cost of Grooming
“You seduced me … I don’t care how old you were. Who was in charge? Who was the boss? Who was in charge? Who was in charge?”
Joe Yoo (Charles Melton) must have been twelve when his Korean family moved to a new town in Savannah, Georgia. The only Korean boy in his grade five class, everyone shied away from him. He was ordinary, isolated, quiet, and no girls seemed to like him in his predominately white town. But Gracie (Julianne Moore), his fifth-grade teacher, saw him. In Todd Haynes’, May December, we see that Gracie saw his vulnerability, saw an opening, and took it.
Now 36, 24-years after his “romantic” partnership with his elementary school teacher, Joe is living the domestic nuclear family vision. Everything is highly ordered, even his alcohol intake, and a choreography of civility propels the family’s rhythm. He prepares barbeque for his family and close friends on a summer weekend while his wife bakes with her friend Rhonda (Andrea Frankle) and gossips about the forthcoming intrusion of Elizabeth (Natalie Portman). Elizabeth is a famed TV actress and Hollywood-type who would like to observe the family and primarily Gracie in her natural conditions. She will be starring as Gracie in a movie retelling of their scandalous, illegal dynamic and she’s endowed with the task of portraying a realistic image of Gracie and so, as a pseudo-anthropologist, she’s set out to note Gracie’s mannerisms, to capture her belief system, observe the way Gracie is able to command Joe to understand their scheme better. Elizabeth has determined that all of this observation is in service of the truth, or as close to it as she can get.
Surprisingly, in May December, Gracie and Joe are rich. Just on the drive to their quiet, secluded home, you can see sprawls of open land for long stretches before you even see their house. Their home’s entrance is so well devised with palm and wallow trees arching the way, it creates a lurid and surreal fogginess, like you’re entering another world, just as you see the actual house. Their home feels more like a mini estate. With a pool, a pool house, and a lake (pond?) in their backyard; it confirms that the family is clearly very well settled in a system.
Elizabeth arrives cooled and relaxed with a breezy boldness as she carries the family’s package from their front porch to the family’s backyard, introducing herself with such steeliness, you wouldn’t think anything of her visit with this particular family. All of that is shaken when she learns that the package she carried was filled with shit. From then on, she sort of stumbles through her encounters with the family. Rhonda assures Elizabeth that Gracie is well loved in her community and everyone acts as though the dynamic between Joe and Gracie is simple. The tabloids that Elizabeth reviews though, tell a different story and the shadows of Gracie’s personality are sharpest when she can quietly control Joe with emotional manipulation. In the mix of the power runs between Gracie and Elizabeth, Joe experiences fissions of consciousness, interrupting his routine and the fabrics of his marriage to Gracie, a woman who he’s contrived a picturesque and measured life with with their three children: Honor (Piper Curda) the oldest, and twins; Mary (Elizabeth Yu) and Charlie (Gabriel Chung).
Over the course of her observation of Gracie, Elizabeth begins to find Gracie understandable then almost appealing, as Gracie continuously leaves Elizabeth insecure, requiring her to almost perform and restrain herself for her approval. Gracie is hot, then cold. One moment she is extending warmth to Elizabeth, offering details about herself and her family to bond with her, pushing boundaries to apply makeup on Elizabeth, touching her lips even, and inviting her to really intimate moments with their family despite their wishes, and in the next, she is so cutting. So much so, Elizabeth visibly shudders at each instance. This flexibility and exacting dominance of her encounters with others, paired with her identity as a white woman who is considered attractive, make Gracie untouchable. The townspeople generally assent to Gracie’s moral failing, underscoring the power of respectability in their ranks, the importance of keeping still with the status quo and protecting their own. Joe just happens to be collateral. Morris Sperber (Lawrence Aranio) Gracie’s lawyer squirms around the issue of abuse, Mr. Henderson (Charles Green), the business owner whose shop was the site of Gracie’s crime, prefers to distance himself from the crime altogether, but extends an exception to Elizabeth. Gracie’s ex-husband Tom Atherton (D. W. Moffett) centers himself in the story. Everyone has succumbed to complicity until Elizabeth’s questions make that difficult to reconcile.
In portraying Vili Fualaau’s story, the fact that Screenwriter Samy Burch called the film May December and had Elizabeth’s visit intersect with the graduation of the twins in May, just as Joe is also reaching the age Gracie was when she inaugurated her crime, ensigns an exclamation point. Of course, Gracie would be well liked or at the very least, accepted. Like every predator, likeability is a central piece of their ability to freely move about in society with impunity. Have you ever heard of a predator who wasn’t able to balance charisma, delusion, and reality, and who stole away with their crimes? It takes a well-orchestrated system to insulate people like Gracie from consequences and that tenuous system relies on an exchange of niceties, attractiveness, and likability.
Joe has no one to confide in by design. Even his own father silences him by never asking the questions needed or creating the space for the truth to be addressed. Some of this has to do with their racialized identity in a white community, for sure, but the rest is just negligence. Joe is failed on many fronts and by many people and everyone you can possibly think of: Gracie, his school, parents, police, his community and Elizabeth, an outsider who seems to relish in the awe of his horrific life. His deep concern for his children, and watchful eye of their lives, hints at why leaving wasn’t the easiest and most likely choice for him. Like every victim of grooming, what choice does he really have when his very identity, self-image, self-esteem and world-view is constructed for him by his abuser? When does the real him start and the character/persona that his abuser has imposed on him begin?
So much is stolen from children who are abused. It never actually mattered that he was twelve or thirteen and she, thirty-six when he was victimized. He could have been sixteen, seventeen, nineteen, twenty-nine or thirty and they, forty-two. The victim could very well be forty-two now, rich, and the abuser fifty-four. Joe could have been (and routinely is) a woman (or a girl). For as long as he was deprived of the ability to be fully human, his behaviour has always been about self-preservation and existing within the frays of vulnerability, even when he acted as though he was fine with his subjugation. In May December, Charles Melton’s 6”1 athletically built body was largely bowed, broken, and shrunken, fantastically showing just how repressed Joe was, had to be, and how much domination it takes to break a spirit. It’s really fitting that this story centered on a boy, if only to compel people to trace his abuser’s antecedent.