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The Real-Life Parallels in 'May December' Are Deeper Than You Think

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Is 'May December' Based on a True Story?Netflix

One of this year's most puzzling Academy Awards snubs is the Todd Haynes-directed May December. The film stars Julianne Moore and Charles Melton as a married couple who, per the film's logline, “buckle under pressure when a Hollywood actress meets them to do research for a film about their past.”

Moore’s character, Gracie, met her husband, Joe, when he was just 13 years old. She was 36 at the time. Despite their vast age difference, she coerced Joe into having a sexual relationship and was sent to prison for rape. Upon her release, Gracie and Joe married and had three children together. When they’re approached to be the subjects of a new film, the couple hopes it will change the public's perception of them—but when Joe begins to unpack their affair, he wonders if their relationship was ever consensual.

The subject matter is difficult to watch, of course, but May December is a masterclass in acting—thanks to the multidimensional performances of Moore, Melton, and Natalie Portman. Still, the Academy shut out May December from the Best Picture, Best Actress, and Best Actor categories. It was, however, nominated for Best Original Screenplay. The film also received nods from The Golden Globes and Critics Choice Awards, but it has yet to win any major category.

May December didn't receive the awards-season recognition it deserves, but it’s still worth your time. If you’ve seen the film and wondered if it's based on a real-life story, you're not alone. Though May December is a work of fiction, it is loosely based on a real-life court case. Keep reading for everything we know about the true story that inspired May December—and tune into the Oscars on March 10, 2024, to see if it takes home the trophy for Best Original Screenplay.

Is May December Based on a True Story?

Haynes has confirmed that May December is partially inspired by a woman named Mary Kay Letourneau, who was arrested in 1997 after pleading guilty to two counts of rape. Her victim was Villi Fualaau, a 12-year-old student whom she taught at Sherwood Elementary in Burien, Washington. Over the course of their relationship, Letourneau gave birth to two children and served six years in prison. After Letourneau's release, she married Fualaau—they were together for 14 years until their split in 2019. Letourneau died the following year from colorectal cancer.

Letourneau and Fualaau were never the subject of a Hollywood movie, like Gracie and Joe, but Haynes utilized aspects of their relationship to create May December. For example, Gracie’s tendency to blame Joe for their relationship is similar to how Letourneau treated Fualaau. Both women asserted that their husbands pursued them—and, therefore, consented to sex—though neither man was old enough to do so at the time.

Following the premiere of May December, those familiar with Letourneau’s case have dug up her old interviews. Reporter Louis Peitzman posted an interview with Letourneau on X (formerly known as Twitter), in which she insists that her husband was complicit in their affair.

As Peitzman points out, Moore and Haynes seemingly pulled from the way Letourneau spoke to her husband in the making of May December. Throughout the film, Gracie consistently undermines Joe’s recollection of events to relieve herself of any blame. It’s a manipulative tactic that hinders Joe’s ability to grapple with the abuse that he endured.

Is Gracie’s Character Similar to Mary Kay Letourneau?

There are even more aspects of Moore's character that mirror how Letourneau acted in real life. One key similarity is how she speaks. In May December, Gracie often talks with a lisp, which slips out she feels attacked. During the New York Film Festival premiere of May December, Haynes said that Letourneau had a “kind of loose upper palate,” which he found interesting. According to Haynes, Moore “took it further” while playing Gracie—especially during the film's pivotal moments. In one scene, her lisp is more pronounced when Joe questions the basis of their relationship. “You seduced me—I don't care how old you were,” she says. “Who was in charge? Who was the boss?” Of course, both Gracie and Letourneau—whether they realized it or not—were the perpetrators all along.

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