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May December: The Real Story

After a fair amount of anticipation, the new film May December, starring Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore, was released on November 17, and people have a lot to say about it. Written by Samy Burch and Alex Mechanik, May December follows the relationship between Elizabeth (Portman) and Gracie (Moore) as the former spends time with the latter to elevate her performance as Gracie in an upcoming film about her and her husband, Joe’s, scandalous relationship.Taking place twenty years after Joe and Gracie began their relationship, Elizabeth’s research on her new role begins to reveal cracks in the marriage. When viewers first see Gracie and Joe together, it’s obvious there’s some sort of age gap between them, but shortly after, it is revealed Joe was 13 and Gracie was 36 when their romance began. Elizabeth flicks through old news clippings of Gracie’s trial to better grasp her expressions, and then it becomes clear who May December is based on - Mary Kay Letourneau.

Back in the summer of 1996, then 34-year-old teacher, Mary Kay Letourneau began a sexual relationship with her student, Vili Fualaau, who was 12 at the time. Letourneau was married with four kids at the time she began having an affair with Fualaau, but their age gap is obviously the most concerning aspect of their relationship. After Mary’s husband found love letters between the two, one of his relatives called the police and Mary was arrested in March 1997.The title of Haynes’ film is supposedly a reference to the term  ‘May December relationship’ - which refers to a sexual relationship with an age gap like the gap between the months May and December. Upon the release of the film on Netflix on the 1st of December, viewers have connected the dots between Gracie’s character and Mary Kay Letourneau, reigniting the scandal almost thirty years after it initially took place. 

After her arrest, Mary Kay plead guilty to two counts of child rape in the second degree. However, whilst awaiting her sentencing she gave birth to her and Vili’s first child. The judge initially gave her six and a half years in prison, but then reduced this sentence to six months of jail time with an additional couple of years of sex offender treatment after the baby was born. Letourneau was also ordered to not contact any of her children, Fualaau, or any other minor. 

The case drew international attention in the media, as did Gracie’s in May December.

Very shortly after she was released, Mary Kay and Vili were caught together which caused the judge to sentence Mary to seven and a half years in prison. Much like her first sentece, she gave birth again later that year. Fualaau’s mother ended up getting custody of the two daughters the controversial couple shared together. By the time Letourneau was released from incarceration, Vili was 21, and he asked the court to reprimand the no-contact order between himself and the mother of his children, which was granted. They eventually married in 2005 and remained together up until 2019, when they divorced. However, they remained close; when Mary Kay died from cancer in July 2020, Vili remained in the will for her estate.

Upon May December’s release, a lot more conversations surrounding Letourneau and Fualaau’s relationship have opened up, not just regarding the age gap but race too. As Mary Kay was an older white woman and Vili was a young person of colour, many people have stated that if the roles were reversed and Vili was older and Mary was the child, the consequences of their relationship would have been extremely different due to racial stereotypes. This collective reflection comes after mass movements like #MeToo and Black Lives Matter. The #MeToo movement works to give victims of sexual misconduct and rape a voice. The foundation of Letourneau and Fualaau’s relationship was built on statutory rape since the minor was under the age of consent in the United States, which is 16. In light of #MeToo, their relationship has been under even more scrutiny after May December’s release. Furthermore, even though Vili Fualaau is of Samoan descent, the premises of the Black Lives Matter movement still resonate with this case, and as previously mentioned, many people who have knowledge of this story are quick to ask what would happen if he were the predator in this situation. What kind of punishment would he have endured because of his ethnicity? The reignition of Letourneau’s crimes that May December is based on has brought up so many more questions amidst recent cultural movements. Whether the filmmakers intended to do so or not - the film has sparked the fire of chaos this relationship brought to the world years ago.



Edited by Chloe Mansola

Image Todd Haynes October 2023 by Montclair Film licensed by CC BY 2.0 

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