Todd Haynes’ latest movie May December may not seem like a traditional true crime tale, but Gracie (Julianne Moore) and Joe’s (Charles Melton) story is based on the real life “relationship” between Seattle teacher Mary Kay Letourneau and her student Vili Fualaau that began in the late ‘90s. While there were obviously some changes made to fictionalize their story for dramatic effect, a lot of what May December depicts isn’t terribly far off from the truth.
In 1997, Letourneau gained nationwide attention after she was arrested on two counts of second-degree child rape, which she eventually pleaded guilty to after she was found to have had a sexual relationship with Fualaau. Because Fualaau was only 13 and a minor at the time of Letourneau’s arrest, his identity was largely kept a secret, leaving Letourneau and her legal team to craft the narrative that the media ultimately ran with.
Rather than highlighting the fact that Letourneau had essentially groomed Fualaau—they first met years earlier when she was his second grade teacher—the leading narrative on the situation was that Letourneau had simply gotten caught up in the moment and made a mistake, and that Fualaau was lucky to have had that experience. Letourneau’s lawyer, David Gehrke, defended her actions saying that “this was a child she took an interest in, not unlike one of us might have taken an interest in one of our teachers. She did a horrible thing… but we all make mistakes. She’s a very good person who did a very bad thing.” Fualaau’s mother even contributed to the adultification of the young boy, saying that her son was “an old soul trapped in a young body” and that Fualauua didn’t “feel victimized.”
Letourneau gave birth to her first child with Fualaau in May 1997 while awaiting sentencing, after which time she was sentenced to six months in the county jail. This occurred after she reached a plea agreement with the state. Though she only served three of those six months, her release was conditional on her receiving three years of sex offender treatment and agreeing to never see Fualaau again. Yet only two weeks after her release in February 1998, police found Letourneau and Fualaau alone together in a car near her home. She was then arrested again, and the plea deal was revoked by the state, leaving Letourneau to serve her original sentence of seven and a half years in prison. In October 1998, she gave birth to her and Fualaau’s second child, meaning that at only 15 years old, Fualaau now had two children—all while still being a child himself.
While their relationship wasn’t exactly normalized per se, it still wasn’t treated the way it would be today. Letourneau graced the cover of People magazine in 1998 with her and Fualaau’s first child, the tabloid calling their relationship a “tryst” built on “obsessive love.” Letourneau appeared doe-eyed and slightly sad on the cover, as though the whole ordeal had been blown out of proportion.
Initially, Fualaau himself rebuffed the idea that he was a victim, telling the Seattle Times (via Vox) that “my life is going to be fine. Mary didn’t harm me in any way. Who are they to say I’m too young to know anything when they don’t even know me?” But just as the fictionalized Joe starts to question his relationship in May December, it seems something similar may have happened with Fualaau. The real-life couple married in 2005 after Letourneau was released from prison and they stayed together for over a decade before separating in 2019. In a 2006 People magazine profile of the pair, Fualaau confessed that he didn’t really know where he fit into Letourneau’s family—her children from her previous marriage were around his age. He also struggled with alcoholism and depression at the time and was arrested for driving under the influence.
May December seems to intentionally echo these situations, right down to the fact that the film is a period piece set in the late 2010s following the fictional Gracie’s arrest in the early 1990s. And it is in this era that Melton’s Joe begins to second-guess his devotion to Gracie and whether he is actually an equal in his marriage or still the young boy being asked to tend to a woman whose power dominates their relationship. Similarly, May December takes its time, just as the media slowly did, in coming around to acknowledge the consequences Gracie’s actions had on her own adult children, whom Natalie Portman‘s Elizabeth gradually meets over the course of the story.
Despite their separation, the real Fualaau stayed by Letourneau’s side as she passed away from cancer in 2020. She left most of her estate to him in her will and he voiced grief for her loss in an interview with Dr. Oz, telling him that he felt like he lost his “best friend.”
While Letourneau did suffer from bipolar disorder that doesn’t excuse her actions. She and Fualaau were not “star-crossed lovers,” nor was Fualaau “lucky” for being coerced into adult situations. May December does take some liberties with the version of the story it tells, but Charles Melton’s performance helps the film feel grounded and serves as a chilling reminder of what it must have been like for Fualaau to process this “relationship” as an adult.