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Marie Claire
Marie Claire
Quinci LeGardye

'May December' Reimagines One of the '90s Most Disturbing Tabloid Stories

Natalie Portman as Elizabeth Berry and Julianne Moore as Gracie Atherton-Yoo in May December.

Acclaimed director Todd Haynes' new Netflix film May December is a psychological drama with a premise taken from the headlines. Written by first-time screenwriter Samy Burch, the film follows a television actress named Elizabeth (Natalie Portman), who flies to Savannah, Georgia, to shadow local couple Gracie and Joe (Julianne Moore and Charles Melton) for an upcoming movie based on their tabloid-fodder past. The pair got together when Gracie, a then-36-year-old married housewife, had an affair with Joe when he was just a seventh grader. Twenty years later, Elizabeth's visit forces the pair to reckon with their past, all during their kids' high school graduation.

If the above premise rings a slight bell, you might remember the real-life story of Mary Kay Letourneau and Vili Fualaau. In 1997, the nation was shocked when it was revealed that Letourneau, a beloved 35-year-old Seattle-area schoolteacher, had become pregnant by Fualaau, her then-13-year-old student with whom she’d been having sex for nearly a year. The story was the prime focus of tabloid media for months, enshrining the scandal in cultural memory.

After watching May December, viewers may wonder how much May December's fictionalized tale differs from the real-life scandal. Read on for a breakdown of the true story that inspired the movie.

Letourneau and Fualaau married in 2005 and stayed together for 15 years.

In 1996, Mary Kay Letourneau was a 34-year-old Seattle-area schoolteacher, married to her college sweetheart, Steve Letourneau, with whom she shared four children. She met Vili Fualaau, who is Samoan American, when he was in her class in the second and sixth grades, in 1991 and 1996, respectively. In February 1997, Steve found some of his wife's love letters to Fualaau at their home, and she was arrested one month later. At the time, she was pregnant by Fulaau, who was 13 and legally too young to consent.

The pair's first child was born in May 1997, as Letourneau awaited sentencing after pleading guilty to charges of second-degree child rape. She was sentenced to a seven-year suspended sentence, and she was initially released after three months on the condition that she entered a treatment program for sex offenders and had no contact with Fualaau. However, she quickly reunited with Fualaau once she was released, and authorities sent her back to prison to complete her seven-year sentence. She gave birth to their second child in 1998, shortly after beginning her second stint in jail.

When she was released in 2004, Letourneau was ordered to have no contact with then 21-year-old Fualaau, but they successfully petitioned to have the order removed. The couple married in 2005 and remained together until they divorced in 2019. (A source told People at the time that the pair's relationship has "run its course.") Letourneau died a year later in July 2020; the cause of death was cancer, per the New York Times.

Letourneau and Fualaau always claimed their relationship was consensual.

When the scandal broke in the late 1990s, the public's cultural knowledge of abuse was much different than it is today. Per Vox, Fulaau's identity was withheld while he was a minor, so in the early years of the scandal, only Letourneau gave her side of the story to the media. She presented herself and the preteen Fulaau as soulmates who couldn't help themselves, telling Oprah Winfrey in a 1998 interview, "I think, with all certainty, this young man is the love of my life, or I wouldn’t have done this to my children."

Letourneau also admitted to behavior that the general public would now (and experts at the time) define as grooming and exploitation, as she reportedly first became interested in Fulaau when he was in the second grade, per Vox. She would give him gifts and special attention, years before she began sexually assaulting him when he entered sixth grade.

Fulaau also claimed that he and Letourneau had been in love and in a consensual relationship during a 1997 interview with The Seattle Times (when he was an anonymous minor). He never spoke out against Letourneau, though he did reportedly say during a 2015 Barbara Walters special that he believed "the system had failed him" as a child.

Mary Kay Letourneau and Vili Fualaau at their home in 2006 (Image credit: Ron Wurzer/Getty Images)

There are several differences between the real-life pair and May December's Gracie and Joe.

In the film, Gracie and Joe Atherton-Yoo's story unfurls through Elizabeth Berry's POV, as the actress questions several members of the town where the pair met and still live. Rather than teacher and student, Gracie and Joe were pet shop coworkers, who were 36 and 13 respectively when they met. (In the film Joe is a schoolmate of Gracie's son Georgie.) One day, they were caught having sex in the shop's stock room. Gracie was later convicted and welcomed the pair's first child Honor (Piper Curda) while in prison, and after she was released, she and Joe married and welcomed twins Charlie and Mary (Gabriel Chung and Elizabeth Yoo). At the time of Elizabeth's visit, Honor is in college while Charlie and Mary are about to graduate high school.

In a Deadline interview, Todd Haynes explained that he was determined from the start to focus on the film as telling a fictional story. However, he added that the research on Letourneau helped both him and Moore in understanding Gracie a bit more.

"I think it was specifically through conversations that I started to have with Julianne about how this kind of a relationship could have begun, and what aspects there were in Gracie that may or may not have foretold this relationship, or been predictive of this kind of behavior, and how that was played out or supported by the Mary Kay Letourneau example," he told the outlet.

Moore also discussed her research in an interview with Today.

"I did do a lot of reading about the case and I looked at some documentary footage, and I think what really struck me when I was watching it was how beautiful she was, how dedicated she was to her children, how very feminine she seemed and her fragility," she said. "Those, to me, seemed to be the really salient points of what she was presenting to the world."

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