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- Jasmijn Groot -  

In 1997, the United States were divided by the troubling Letourneau case: then 35-year old Mary Kay Letourneau, a primary school teacher working just outside of Seattle, Washington, was sentenced to six and a half years in prison for the sexual relationship she was having with her then 13-year old former pupil Vili Fualaau. After serving her sentence, and giving birth to two daughters, Letourneau married Fualaau in 2005. Fualaau filed for divorce in 2019, when, as an adult, he finally came to realise just how troubled their relationship had been. Society’s stance towards the affair had not really helped matters. Sexual relationships between adult men and underage girls disgust us. As a society, we immediately recognise that these types of relationships are uneven and highly disturbing. But what if the roles are reversed? Todd Haynes’s new movie, May December, tackles this matter. 

Elizabeth and Gracie 

In May December, we follow Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman), a television actress, who is doing research for her new project, an indie film about Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore) and her husband Joe Yoo (Charles Melton). Their relationship was highly sensationalised more than 20 years earlier, as it started when Gracie was an adult and married with kids, whilst Joe was only 13 years old and a high school friend of Gracie’s son George. After serving a jail sentence, the couple married and raised their three children together in a quiet Georgia town. On the surface, it seems as if this extraordinary family is living an ordinary life like any other family in America. But with Elizabeth’s presence, it become more and more clear that things are amiss all around.


From the get go, Elizabeth pretends to be interested in the depth and complexity of Gracie and Joe’s story. In reality, however, she is rather pretentious. She focuses more on imitating Gracie, or how her poses and posture will come across on the silver screen. While researching the case, she is not at all willing to look beyond the sensationalised exterior that the case has received from the community and the tabloid press. There is a very fine line between being able to portray a totally superficial character who pretends to be interested in complexity, or completely overdoing it. Portman seemingly without effort finds that line and never crosses it. Just give this woman her second Oscar! 

Meanwhile, Gracie is just as egotisitcal in her objectives as Elizabeth. She hopes to get her side of the story out with Elizabeth’s movie, so that she will be seen in a better light. Gracie believes that she has done nothing wrong: she just fell in love and that makes everything okay. However, she treats her husband very much like a child still, while she herself can become very childish when she feels she has been wronged by the community - in which she has unsurprisingly become a bit of a pariah.  


The sympathy of the movie always lies with Joe. Now a strapping adult well into his thirties, a closer look at the character makes it clear that he is in a state of arrested development. Unlike Gracie, he does not say much and is hardly as eloquent. He still trudges in the same fashion a 13-year old would. Elizabeth describes him as handsome and charming, while Joe displays a very introverted and shy demeanour, coming across as a man who does not really know how to sweep a woman off her feet. And in his interactions with his twins, who are about to go to college, it becomes clear that Joe missed out on a childhood entirely.  

Despite Elizabeth’s many interactions with Gracie, Joe, family, friends, and other members of the community, the alarming and criminal nature that is at the very core of Gracie and Joe’s relationship is never discussed. It is even often just glossed over. Only with subtle, yet powerful details, that Haynes has sprinkled all over the film, is it that we as and audience get a more disturbing reality check of how messed up relationships between adults and minors are - even when that minor is male.  

A great example is how Joe looks way too young to be the father of his children. When standing or sitting next to them, he looks more like their older brother. Thus, without addressing the crime directly, Haynes does remind us of what is terribly wrong here. In stark contrast, the fictional filmmakers that Elizabeth is working with, unintentionally shy away from confronting their audience with this horrible truth completely. While at first they are keen to hire a talented child actor to play Joe, in the end they cast an older looking young man. And not even because the image of an adult Elizabeth acting out a romantic relationship with a little boy may be too unsettling.  


It is because they cannot find any child actor capable of radiating the seductive qualities that the young Joe must have possessed to have won over the adult Gracie. Obviously missing the whole point of their relationship completely. 

Oversimplified Rip Off of a Complex Story? 

The point being that sexual abuse of male minors is not taken as serious as abuse of female minors. Vili Fualaau himself has stated that he was legally held accountable for what transpired between him and his former wife – who passed away from cancer in 2020 – to the same degree as the adult Letourneau was. On top of that, he was mercilessly bullied by classmates and by police, to the point where he abused alcohol and attempted taking his own life. If Fualaau had been an underage girl, we would have protected him at all costs, and we would have held a male version of Letourneau more accountable for their crimes. 

Although to this gender historian it seems that Haynes, Portman, Moore, and Melton were entirely on Fualaau’s side in getting the message across that we as a society have wronged victims of abuse like him, Fualaau is appalled by May December. He was not contacted during its production process and has accused the director and actors of doing nothing more than what Elizabeth Berry is doing in the movie: creating a oversimplified rip off of a complex story. You can be the judge of that yourself. 


Image: Netflix (2023) May December.


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