In the new Todd Haynes movie May December (now available on Netflix), Julianne Moore plays Gracie Atherton-Yoo, a sunny housewife who spends her days baking cakes in her large, waterside Savannah, Georgia home. She has three kids, one of them in college and the other two about to graduate high school. She has a loving husband named Joe (Charles Melton), who picks up take-out and soothes her when she cries.
But Gracie and Joe are anything but your typical couple: Their story is loosely based on that of Mary Kay Letourneau, the teacher who was convicted of second-degree child rape in 1997. In 1992, Gracie, a married 36-year-old mother, was caught having sex with Joe, a 13-year-old, at the pet store where they worked. May December is set over 20 years later, when actress Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman) visits the Atherton-Yoos as she prepares to play Gracie in a film. They welcome her with barbecue, and later with Gracie’s freshly caught quail and homemade cake.
Throughout May December, food provides an attempt at normalcy for both Gracie and Joe, who continue to live in the same insular community where their scandal erupted. Attempt, of course, is the key word. What is mundane for most people is, for Gracie and Joe, a constant performance of both delusion and elision. The root of their relationship can’t be problematic if they simply choose not to acknowledge it; as long as she has the picture-perfect family, Gracie can’t have done harm.
We assume for the first third of the movie that Gracie has found herself a lucky pursuit in her home baking — how delicious her cakes must be to warrant such steady local demand! Considered in the context of her community, Gracie’s cakes can be seen as an atonement (providing for the community after damaging it) and as an appeasement (through cake, Gracie literally makes herself more palatable to her neighbors).
Then we learn the truth, as told to Elizabeth by Morris, the neighbor who represented Gracie at trial: Simply put, they’re sympathy cakes, ordered repeatedly by just a handful of people. They’re a “kindness,” Morris says, intended to keep Gracie busy. One might wonder then how much being busy in the kitchen is for Gracie’s benefit, and how much of it is to keep Gracie and her transgressions out of sight, out of mind.
The cakes are their own kind of illusion. Through them, the community can maintain a facade of normalcy in its perception of Gracie; they can find something else to associate her with, without acknowledging what she’s done. This too has its limits. “How many pineapple upside down cakes can a family eat?” Morris asks. When Gracie later loses a client, she breaks down, bawling in bed. Her disproportionate reaction suggests that perhaps even she is aware of the ruse and of how tenuous her position in her community really is. If they don’t want her cakes, do they even want her?
Cake is a natural symbol for all of this. Gracie’s cakes, like her life, are dependent on a sense of perfection. We see her smoothing a layer cake at the beginning of the movie, and when she shows Elizabeth how to make her pineapple upside down cake, she stands just inches away, ensuring that the decorations meet her exacting standards. “Do it nicely, because it really does matter how it looks,” she chides. Gracie’s cakes are another form of control and artifice — just like her relationship with Joe, her relationship with her children, and her relationship with Elizabeth, as she tries to manipulate what the actress knows and who she talks to.
Meanwhile, Joe, who is about to become an empty nester in just his mid-30s, can’t even make it through a cookout without being confronted by the distinct weirdness of his life. As Joe grills hot dogs, a guest awkwardly tells him about how he’s looked up pictures of Elizabeth naked, highlighting the absurdity of a famous actress embedding into Gracie and Joe’s life. Joe is soon pulled away from his tasks by Gracie, who needs help disposing of yet another box of poop that’s been mailed to their door.
Later, the Atherton-Yoos, with Elizabeth in tow, go out to dinner to celebrate their children Charlie and Mary’s graduation. That premise is normal enough, but this meal too dangles on the edge of disaster: At the restaurant, they run into Gracie’s other family — the ex-husband and children she abandoned in her pursuit of Joe.
These are the roles that Gracie and Joe have slotted themselves into: the smiley, baking housewife, and the doting, reliable grill-dad. Still, in little moments, we see Gracie and Joe acknowledging the artifice of their lives. There’s Gracie in the restaurant bathroom admitting her unrealistic expectation of having a normal dinner, and Joe finally asking her, “What if I was too young?” No number of cakes — no matter how delicious or perfectly frosted — can make their lives truly normal.