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How Closely Does ‘May December’ Follow the Bonkers True Story of Mary Kay Letourneau?

May December. (L to R) Natalie Portman as Elizabeth Berry and Julianne Moore as Gracie Atherton-Yoo in May December.

When it comes to scandals, Mary Kay Letourneau’s is hard to forget. The tale of a teacher caught having sex with her 12-year-old student dominated the news in the late 1990s, and now it’s back thanks to a fictionalized film version in May December.

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May December is streaming now on Netflix, raising new questions about how closely the movie follows the disturbing real-life details.

Who is Mary Kay Letourneau?

Mary Kay Letourneau was a teacher in Seattle when she started a sexual relationship with 12-year-old Vili Fualaau, whom she taught when he was in both second and sixth grade. You’re probably already saying, “Yuck,” and you’re absolutely right to do so!

Letourneau went to jail for over seven years while somehow bearing two children and making Fualaau a father-of-two at the ripe old age of 15. They tied the knot less than a year after she got out of prison, when Fualaau was 21 years old and Letourneau was 43.

Vili Fualauu and Mary Kay Letourneau in a 2018 interview
(7 News Spotlight/YouTube)

May December

May December stars Julianne Moore as Gracie Atherton-Yoo, a wife and mother who is caught having sex with her 13-year-old pet store coworker, Joe (Charles Melton in a breakout role). The movie begins when we meet B-list actress Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman), who is doing research for a movie in which she plays Gracie.

Not real: Names, places, and occupations

All of the characters’ names were changed. The location was altered, as well. Instead of Washington, the movie is set in a well-to-do community in Georgia. Notably, instead of being a teacher, Gracie is a baker. Screenwriter Samy Burch told Motion Pictures that he purposely changed Gracie’s profession because he thought the teacher-student trope is overplayed, plus he wanted to draw a fine line between fact and fiction.

“In some ways, the person that I envisioned as Gracie—her personality, her spirit—didn’t feel like a teacher to me,” he said. “But I also think there was a conscious effort to fictionalize this with all the little details. The big-picture details are similar, but I wanted to invent names, places, their history, their families, their jobs.”

Natalie Portman stands behind Julianne Moore looking in the mirror in May December

Real: Things with Letourneau’s first family were awkward

In May December, some of the first cracks form in Gracie’s façade when Elizabeth asks if she’s still in touch with her ex-husband Tom (D.W. Moffett) and their three adult children. “Why is that relevant?” Gracie demands during an uncomfortable dinner scene.

In reality, Letourneau maintained a loose relationship with her first four children, but ex-husband Steve Letourneau kept his distance. In a 2015 interview with Barbara Walters, Fualaau said, “It’s an awkward feeling, for sure, to be close in age with someone [who is] technically your stepson or stepdaughter.”

Not real: Fualaau wasn’t as passive as Joe, and the marriage didn’t last

Unlike the movie, with Joe and Gracie snuggling and seemingly happy 24 years after they first met, Letourneau and Fualaau had a rocky relationship. Their two children were raised by his mother when Letourneau went to prison, and Fualaau dropped out of high school. Later, he struggled with alcoholism and depression, and he attempted suicide in 1999.

Fualaau and his family even (unsuccessfully) attempted to sue Letourneau’s school district for emotional suffering, lost wages, and the cost of raising their kids, asserting that the school district didn’t protect him from Letourneau.

In May 2017, he filed for separation after they’d been married for 12 years, but later withdrew it. The couple finally called it quits in 2019, just a year before Letourneau died of cancer.

Real: Julianne Moore’s characterization of Gracie

Moore gave a truly phenomenal performance as Gracie, a simpering, unstable, manipulative sex offender who still doesn’t believe she did anything wrong. She mirrored Letourneau’s style—the babydoll summer dresses with thin straps, the waspy blonde hair, the pink lipstick Gracie can’t stop applying. Then there’s the matter of that lisp ….

Throughout the film, Gracie adopts a babyish lisp whenever she’s feeling threatened or unsteady. It’s as creepy as you’d imagine, and is one of the infantilizing affectations she takes on as a form of self-protection. In an interview with The Daily Beast, director Todd Haynes said, “Mary Kay Letourneau has this fascinating sort of lazy tongue,” adding, “That’s the source of the lisp.”

Real: Both women insisted they were seduced

In one of the wildest scenes in May December, a tearful Gracie demands that Joe answer a question about “who was in charge” when they first began their relationship. “You seduced me—I don’t care how old you were,” Gracie says. “Who was in charge? Who was the boss?”

This cringeworthy exchange was taken almost verbatim from a 2018 interview with Letourneau and Fualaau. “You don’t know him!” Letourneau said when asked about who pursued whom. Interviewer Matt Doran seemed exasperated as he told Letourneau, “But I don’t need to know him in this discussion. He was the child.”

Turning to glare at Fualaau, Letourneau demands, “Who was the boss? Who was the boss?”

Real: The love letters

The love letter that proves to be a pivotal plot point in May December was based in truth. Letourneau and Fualaau exchanged love notes throughout their relationship. In fact, Letourneau was sent to solitary confinement for six months after one of her letters to Fualaau was discovered while she was imprisoned.

Real: She felt no remorse

Gracie remains unapologetic throughout the film, even when confronted by Joe’s newfound questions about their origin story. She tells Elizabeth she’s happy with the choices she made in life. Similarly, Letourneau said in an ABC special interview, “Am I sorry he’s the father of my children, and that we’re married and this is the man of my life? No, I’m not.”

Charles Melton as Joe Yoo and Julianne Moore as Gracie Atherton-Yoo in May December

Unclear: Gracie’s own sexual abuse history

Spoilers ahead!

The one plot point that remains uncertain is when Gracie’s son tells Elizabeth that his mother was sexually abused by her older brothers when she was about twelve. Since abused people often become abusers themselves, this revelation might explain why a tween Joe wasn’t off-limits in Gracie’s eyes. Later, Gracie refutes the claim, and Letourneau made no such claims during her lifetime, so we’ll never know if this part of the story is real or not.

There’s so much to unpack in May December, but it does seem that much of the story is based in heartbreaking truth. Gracie is a perfumed predator, and Joe has lived most of his life not realizing that he was a kept man, much like the caterpillars he “saves” in his living room. The movie ends too soon to see if, like Fualaau, Joe ever completes his metamorphosis and flies away.

(featured image: Francois Duhamel/courtesy of Netflix

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Beverly Jenkins
Beverly Jenkins (she/her) is a contributing writer for The Mary Sue. She writes about pop culture, entertainment, and web memes, and has published a book or a funny day-to-day desk calendar about web humor every year for a decade. When not writing, she's listening to audiobooks or watching streaming movies under a pile of her very loved (spoiled) pets.

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