Julianne Moore, left, plays a woman with a past, and...

Julianne Moore, left, plays a woman with a past, and Natalie Portman is an actress set to portray her in "May December." Credit: Netflix/Francois Duhamel

THE MOVIE "May December"

WHEN | WHERE Streaming on Netflix.

WHAT IT'S ABOUT "May December" stars Natalie Portman as a Hollywood star named Elizabeth Berry, who arrives in Savannah, Georgia, circa 2015, to spend time with the real-life person she's about to portray in a movie.

That's Grace Atherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore), a mother, wife and professional baker who also has served time in prison because she began a sexual relationship with her husband Joe Yoo (Charles Melton) more than two decades earlier, when she was 36 and he was 13.

The movie is directed by veteran filmmaker Todd Haynes ("Carol") and written by Samy Burch, a debuting feature screenwriter who once worked in casting departments on franchises such as "The Hunger Games."

MY SAY One could be forgiven for assuming that "May December" plays as a sort of lurid, trashy thriller, the cinematic version of the tabloid stories that once prominently featured Grace, not to mention the movie's loose real-life inspiration, Mary Kay Letourneau.

With a different director, and a screenplay less attuned to moral complexities, it might have been exactly that.

But Haynes and Burch see a bigger picture here. The story they tell focuses on the decadeslong, rippling fallout from this destructive moment, the damage of families and lives destroyed.

The signs are everywhere: a shot of piles and piles of cigarettes, resting in a heap, chain-smoked by a character who might have stopped the abuse.

Grace's utter refusal to reckon with her conduct, a level of denial so deeply rooted, so second nature, that it seems to define her.

Joe's childlike demeanor and fraught emotional state, beautifully and carefully portrayed by Melton, say so much about the trauma he carries with him, even as he and his wife prepare to send their second and third children off to college.

This story is compelling enough that it could stand on its own. But Elizabeth's presence further complicates the picture by shifting the focus right back onto the viewer. 

Haynes makes great use of disturbing and tense moments in which Portman and Moore share the same mirror, and even the same makeup, as well as other parallel touches that show the extent to which Elizabeth has grown increasingly obsessed with not just observing this person but inhabiting her life.

It's a difficult character to get right. Portman does so because she worries less about making Elizabeth into a figure of empathy than one of single-minded intensity. This person functions as a stand-in for the audience, there to exemplify something tangible, if not easily defined, about the ways in which we have been trained to voraciously consume this sort of ripped-from-the-headlines story. 

The cumulative effect of it all: a movie that lives in the margins, that remains persistently and appropriately unwilling to offer answers to tough questions or a clear template for how to think or how to feel. It's unafraid to be honest about a difficult subject, and to recognize that the truth of it all cannot be easily understood.

BOTTOM LINE This is a thoughtful and compassionate movie, beautifully portrayed, when it could have been something very different.

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