The lurid past at the haunted heart of May December, in theaters tomorrow and streaming Dec. 1 on Netflix, dates back to a time when scandals swept the nation. Events that once invaded our living rooms and took over our TV screens are now the subjects of documentaries we scroll past when browsing Netflix. If you recall the 2016 documentary Amanda Knox, you’ll remember it lingering in the unsettling calm a decade after the storm of the titular murder exoneree’s scandal. Several scenes showed her pouring wine at home and poring over the tabloids on magazine stands, still searching for her face on the covers. 

May December also picks up during a quiet, seemingly normal time in the life of its controversial subject, Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore) — a woman now married with the children she birthed while serving time for the statutory rape of their father / her husband, Joe (Charles Melton), when he was 13 years old. This setup is loosely based on the case of former schoolteacher Mary Kay Letourneau and her student, Vili Fualaau, who set the media ablaze with their torrid affair in the late 1990s and left it simmering through their bizarrely ordinary domestic life in the 2000s. 

The film follows actress Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman) as she casts a dark, chilly cloud over Gracie and Joe’s sunny, sultry Savannah home. Elizabeth is there to dredge up their past for an upcoming film project in which she will play Gracie. At first, Elizabeth seems like a stand-in for the audience, but as the film unravels, appearances prove to be deceptive. Meanwhile, director Todd Haynes employs a thrillingly sensationalist style that further throws us off balance, resulting in one of the most blackly comic, sneakily heartbreaking films of the year. 

From its opening moments, the film puts us on edge, waiting for the shoe to drop. Before Elizabeth arrives for an Atherton-Yoo family barbecue, melodramatic Dateline crime show music kicks in when Gracie opens the fridge to reveal not a severed head but … a lack of hot dogs. (Marcelo Zarvos’ score is actually a re-orchestration of Michel Legrand’s music for 1971’s The Go-Between, which also revolves around a forbidden romance involving a young boy.) 

Haynes and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt also envelop everyone in shadow, as if hiding their identities in a tawdry TV tell-all special. 

Haynes teases us with these stylistic flourishes, promising the kind of seedy drama he knows we crave, only to punch us in the gut with deeper, darker truths. One of the film’s most quietly devastating moments finds Joe hiding from his family on the roof of his house. His teenage son crawls out of his bedroom window to join him, and Joe slowly reveals himself to be a fellow scared kid — more of a younger brother than a father. Here, more than in any other scene, we face the harsh reality that underneath its true-crime appeal lies a sad cautionary tale that could happen to anyone. 

While we expect to side with Elizabeth, Joe ends up being the most empathetic character — like a delicate butterfly chrysalis caught between two snakes. Gracie barks at him when he brings butterflies into their bedroom, as if she might hurt the creatures as she damaged him. 

While Melton delivers a subdued performance, Portman pulls no punches. This is her most surprising, deliciously sinister performance since her Oscar-winning turn in Black Swan. Moore is insidiously nasty as well, slowly unveiling a high-school mean-girl demeanor and sense of arrested development that reveals the mess beneath the manicured surface of her life.

May December is a film that sneaks up and pulls the rug out from under you. Like Elizabeth, the screenplay by Samy Burch (based on a story by him and Alex Mechanik) pokes and prods with uncomfortable questions, but it digs beyond the sensationalist surface, staying with you long after you leave the theater or disconnect from Netflix.