Oscars 2024: May December and the Art of Slipping into Another Skin

For the script of her first feature film, Samy Burch has been nominated for Best Original Screenplay.
Oscars 2024: ‘May December’ and the Art of Slipping into Another Skin
Oscars 2024: ‘May December’ and the Art of Slipping into Another Skin

Two women stand before a mirror, looking at their reflections. They’re both beautiful. They don’t look alike. One is a brunette, the other is blonde. The younger one stares with wide-eyed curiosity, her lips parted and a hint of a smile quirking the elegant line. The older woman looks more wary. Her mouth — pink lips, the same shade as what is on the other woman, but the contrast is sharper against the paler, ageing skin — holds its shape with a forbidding tension. 

As the older woman paints her face, the younger woman watches, assiduously checking the details of the make-up being used, taking notes. Then, the older woman turns so that the two of them are face to face, and she begins to touch up the younger woman’s face as if it was her own. All the while, the two women ask one another questions and offer answers that highlight the vast differences between them. 

“My mother wrote a pretty respected book on epistemic relativism,” says the younger woman wryly. 

“Well my mother wrote a great recipe for blueberry cobbler,” replies the other woman.

Yet at the end of sharing differences, the two women have become a little more like one another than they were at the start of the scene. Not quite doppelgangers, but also not the opposites that they’d seemed at the start. The gaps between reflection, reality and performance have shrunk, with one slipping a little closer to another. There’s a staring contest between these two characters, and no one’s blinking — neither the women on screen, nor the audience off screen. 

Based on a story that Samy Burch wrote with her real-life partner Alex Mechanik, May December is a riddle of a film that is evidently inspired by the case of sex offender Mary Kay Letourneau, who pleaded guilty to second-degree rape of a child, admitting that she initiated a romantic relationship with 12-year-old Vili Fualaau. Letourneau and Fualaau would later get married and have two children. She passed away in 2020 and Fualaau has told the media that he felt “offended” by May December, which is not available to Indian subscribers of Netflix despite being one of the platform’s original productions.. 

Fualaau’s reactions to the film are perhaps understandable, but equally valid is the critical appreciation that May December has received, particularly for the way the story unfolds in the film. In her screenplay, Burch changes some details to create distance from the actual case while still leaning on real incidents. The prism through which Burch explores the moral complexities of this May-December relationship is the character of an actress, who inserts herself into the life of the person she intends to play in a biopic. 

On a day that seems idyllic and sun-kissed, Elizabeth Barry (Natalie Portman) shows up at Gracie Atherton-Yoo’s (Julianne Moore) home. She’s the actress who is going to play Gracie in an indie film that’s going to focus on how Gracie and her husband Joe (Charles Melton) got together. Burch teases the audience for a bit, letting it be known that they’re seen as a loving couple by friends and taking her time to reveal Joe was 13 when Gracie, then in her 30s, and he had sex. 

It’s immediately evident that the two women have little in common and there’s a thread of subtle antagonism between them. While Gracie seems polite and welcoming, she isn’t enamoured by Elizabeth. Notebook in hand and questions on her lips, Elizabeth shadows Gracie and asks people about Gracie’s controversial past. Her tone is neutral and unthreatening, but with every conversation, Elizabeth seems a little more Machiavellian. Burch’s screenplay masterfully layers banal ordinary exchanges with hints of menace and transgression. Elizabeth seems to almost relish manipulating people into giving her the information and access she wants, and in imagining the ethically-messy scandals from Grace’s past. Gracie comes across like a sphinx, but with cracks in her armour. Around Elizabeth, she seems impenetrable, but on her own and with her husband Joe (Charles Melton), she is a tumbleweed of tears and fury. 

For a writer to create the electric tension that Burch does — using seemingly banal dialogues that feel coded with secrets and menace — is remarkable. To do this in her first screenplay is awe-inspiring.  

Related Stories

No stories found.