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Is May December a true story? Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman film inspired by Mary Kay Letourneau case

Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman both play fictitious roles in May December but director Todd Haynes has shared his inspiration behind the Oscar-tipped film

Out in UK cinemas this week, the film has attracted good reviews for its performances and handling of themes of sexuality and manipulation. May December — a phrase to describe an extreme age-gap relationship — premiered at Cannes, where Portman spoke out about the pressures placed upon child stars.

She plays Elizabeth Berry, an actress who prepares for a biopic by spending time with its subject Gracie (Moore). Gracie is married to Joe Yoo (Charles Melton), the much younger man she was convicted, two decades before, of having sex with when she was in her mid-30s and when he was a boy of 13.

Elizabeth learns that Gracie served a prison sentence and is on a sex offender register, having left her husband and children in the early 1990s.

The film depicts Gracie and Joe living in Savannah, Georgia, with two children in their late teens, their eldest daughter having already left home. Elizabeth’s presence and probing questions change the dynamic within the household and lead to questions about the ethics of the situation.

May December is a work of fiction, but is there any truth behind it?

May December: Natalie Portman, Charles Melton, director Todd Haynes, Julianne Moore and Cory Michael Smith (PA)
May December: Natalie Portman, Charles Melton, director Todd Haynes, Julianne Moore and Cory Michael Smith (PA)

Is May December based on a true story?

The film explores the relationship between Julianne Moore’s character Gracie and the actress playing her. Portman’s Elizabeth is entirely fictional but Gracie is very loosely based on Mary Kay Letourneau.

The events of May December did not happen but Haynes said the screenplay was based on true events.

“I really started by pushing that to the side and just being like, 'OK, let’s bear down on the specific choices and the distinctions that Samy Burch’s script makes from the Mary Kay Letourneau story',” he told the Daily Beast.

“But there was no way ultimately to not. In some ways, there were places where I was like, 'Oh, I’ll think about that later, how this relationship really started, and what Joe looked like, and who Joe was'.”

Mary Kay Letourneau in 1998 (AP)
Mary Kay Letourneau in 1998 (AP)

Who was Mary Kay Letourneau?

Letourneau was 34 when she began a platonic relationship with Vili Fualaau, 12. She worked as a teacher at an elementary school in Washington.

Unlike the film, where the pair worked at a pet shop, Letourneau and Fualaau met at school.

During the summer of 1996, the pair began a sexual relationship which led to her arrest in March 1997. May December’s events took place in 1993 and 1994.

Similarly to the film, the events became an international tabloid scandal. Letourneau gave birth to a daughter while she was awaiting sentencing, having already pleaded guilty to two counts of second-degree child rape. Her six-year sentence was reduced to six months, three of which were suspended.

However, after her release, Letourneau was discovered again with Fualaau — which violated the terms of her agreement. She was handed a seven-and-a-half-year jail sentence and had her second child, fathered by Fualaau, while inside. The pair reunited upon her release and married in 2005.

They separated in 2019 and Letourneau died in 2020 from colorectal cancer, aged 58. Fualaau, now 40, was by her side at her death and was included in her will. He has since fathered another child with a new partner.

Other differences with the film are that Fualaau is of Fijian and not Korean origin, as Joe is, and that the pair had two and not three children together.