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How Does ‘May December’ Shape Up to the Real Story?

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Pitt chapter.

A woman meets a young boy at her job. Despite their age difference – she is in her mid-30s and he is in his very early teens – she coerces him into a sexual relationship. They get caught. She serves time in prison, gives birth to his daughter and marries him upon her release. This is the premise of Todd Haynes’s latest Netflix film, May December. The story, which might strike you as familiar, draws heavy inspiration from the late 90s-early 00s tabloid saga of Mary Kay Letourneau.

Letourneau was an elementary school teacher in Washington state. In 1996, she, a married mother of four, was discovered by police in an intimate position with her 12-year-old student, Vili Fualaau. In 1997, while awaiting sentencing, she gave birth to their first daughter and subsequently served a six-month jail term. Released under the condition of no contact with Fualaau, she was later found with him again and sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in prison, during which she had their second daughter. Upon her release in 2005, Letourneau and Fualaau married.

May December doesn’t exactly replicate the Letourneau scandal, but it is very similar. The characters are renamed Gracie Atherton-Yoo and Joe Yoo, they live in Georgia and Joe’s descent has changed from Samoan to Korean. Their relationship’s origins also differ. In the film, Gracie hires Joe at the pet store where she works. Unlike Letourneau and Fualaau, throughout the movie, Gracie and Joe are followed by Elizabeth Berry, an actress researching her role as Gracie in an upcoming Hollywood film.

Elizabeth, the method actress played by Natalie Portman, drives the plot forward. She pokes into the details of Gracie, Joe and their three children’s lives. Elizabeth becomes a fixture at family events. She attends dinners and the graduation of the two youngest Yoo children. She meets with those indirectly connected to the initial scandal — Gracie’s ex-husband, her eldest son and her lawyer. Her visit to the pet store where Gracie and Joe’s relationship began is particularly pivotal. This intense scrutiny causes strains in Gracie and Joe’s relationship, particularly for Joe, who starts to question the moral foundations of their marriage.

The acting underscores the striking similarities between the original story and May December, particularly Julianne Moore’s portrayal of Gracie. Despite the differences between Gracie and Mary Kay Letourneau, Moore draws inspiration from Letourneau’s mannerisms. She mimics Letourneau’s lisp, adjusting its intensity to reflect her emotional state. In a pivotal scene with Joe, Gracie pressures him to confess that he was the seducer, echoing one of Letourneau’s key defenses in her relationship with Fualaau.

Charles Melton’s portrayal of Joe is distinct. He presents Joe as emotionally stunted, appearing no more mature at 36 than he likely was at 13. Often hunched and reticent, he speaks only when addressed, and even then, his responses are quiet and uneasy. During Elizabeth’s visit to his workplace as a radiology technician, he seems more like a child in costume than a competent professional. This portrayal is deeply moving, capturing Joe’s gradual reckoning with the trauma inflicted by Gracie through nuanced acting. In contrast to the real-life scenario where Fualaau filed for divorce from Letourneau in 2019, the film leaves the fate of Joe and Gracie’s relationship unresolved.

May December is a thorough exploration of stolen innocence and the impact of trauma. Joe isn’t Gracie’s only victim, mirroring real-life events. The community’s reaction to Gracie and Joe echoes the societal response to Letourneau, constantly highlighting the immorality of their relationship’s origins. The film consistently portrays Gracie and Joe as unequal partners, paralleling the dynamic between Letourneau and Fualaau. Interactions between Elizabeth and the three Yoo children underscore their aversion to the film, with the eldest daughter explicitly expressing her wish for Elizabeth not to proceed. This ripple effect of trauma extends beyond Joe to his children and those close to him, creating a profound parallel between the film’s narrative and real events.

May December is more than a compelling exploration of complex themes. It is also a showcase of exceptional acting and on-screen chemistry. The performances of Melton, Moore and Portman are particularly noteworthy, each bringing depth and nuance to their roles. Their interactions are a masterclass in character dynamics, making the film a must-watch for those who appreciate powerful storytelling and captivating performances. This film isn’t just a narrative journey; it’s an acting tour de force that deserves to be seen.

Sienna is a freshman at the University of Pittsburgh. When it comes to writing, she likes to tackle topics like movies, television, music, celebrities, and any other pop culture goings-on. Sienna is a biological sciences and sociology double major at Pitt with a goal of attaining a certificate in Conceptual Foundations of Medicine. In addition to being a writer at Her Campus, Sienna is in the Frederick Honors College and is a member of Women in Healthcare, Pitt Democrats, and Bookmarked. After her undergraduate education, Sienna hopes to go to medical school and become a cardiothoracic surgeon. When she's not reading or studying, Sienna loves crossing films off her watchlist, reading new books, and trying a latte from every coffee shop in Oakland.