Todd Haynes’ new film May December stars Julianne Moore and Charles Melton as a married couple with a complicated history (to say the least), and Natalie Portman as an actress who inserts themselves into their lives while preparing to perform in a movie about the beginning of their relationship.
The detail which makes this marriage so unusual, and which drives much of the deeply unsettling dynamics throughout the film, is the fact that Moore’s character Gracie met her now-husband, Joe, when she was 36 and he was 13.
After initiating a sexual relationship with Joe while he was a minor, Gracie served a prison sentence for child-rape and, following her release, lives as a registered sex offender. Complicating things even further is the fact that she and Joe now have three children: college student Honor, and high school students Charlie and Mary.
Gracie and Joe, it seems, are eager for the movie Elizabeth (Portman) is making to shift public perception of their relationship—but as Elizabeth asks more and more questions about their life together, Joe becomes less and less certain of the version of events he has always claimed, and begins to wonder if he was old enough to consent.
Is May December based on a true story?
While May December is technically a work of fiction—the character of Elizabeth, for instance, is completely invented—many of the facts surrounding Gracie and Joe’s marriage are rooted in reality. Director Todd Haynes and screenwriters Sammy Burch and Alex Mechanik used the true story of Mary Kay Letourneau and Vili Fualaau as the inspiration for the film.
In 1996, 34-year-old Letourneau began a sexual relationship with 12-year-old Fualaau, who had previously been a student. She was arrested in 1997, and pled guilty to two counts of second-degree rape of a child. While awaiting sentencing, she gave birth to a daughter, her first child with Fualaau.
Letourneau’s initial six-year sentence was reduced to six months through a plea agreement, on the condition that she not contact Fualaau. However, after the two were found by police in a car together, a judge revoked Letourneau’s plea deal and she ended up serving a seven-year sentence, during which she gave birth to her second daughter with Fualaau.
Letourneau was released from prison in 2004, and registered as a sex offender in the state of Washington. She married Fualaau, then 22, in 2005. Their marriage lasted 14 years, and they legally separated in 2019. Letourneau died from cancer in 2020.
Philip Ellis is News Editor at Men’s Health, covering fitness, pop culture, sex and relationships, and LGBTQ+ issues. His work has appeared in GQ, Teen Vogue, Man Repeller and MTV, and he is the author of Love & Other Scams.