May December fact vs fiction: The real story behind the Netflix movie

May December, L to R: Julianne Moore as Gracie Atherton-Yoo with Charles Melton as Joe. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix
May December, L to R: Julianne Moore as Gracie Atherton-Yoo with Charles Melton as Joe. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix /

Directed by Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Todd Haynes (Carol, Far From Heaven), a new drama that’s about to start streaming follows an unexpected, very real story. May December was released in select theaters in November and is available on Netflix on Dec. 1, starring Oscar winners Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore. The storytelling is complex and intriguing as we get to meet an actress named Elizabeth who is preparing to play a real-life woman named Gracie for a film. It’s a big task for Elizabeth considering the woman she’s portraying is extremely controversial.

As the story gets going, it’s revealed that Gracie met her husband Joe when he was a child and she was in her mid-30s, and the two had an illegal sexual relationship. She was sentenced to prison for her crimes, but the two reconnected and eventually got married. Sound familiar? It’s true that the premise for May December is inspired by real events. We’re breaking down what’s true in the movie and what was made up.

Warning: Spoilers for May December ahead.

May December
May December, L to R: Charles Melton as Joe Yoo with Natalie Portman as Elizabeth Berry. Cr. François Duhamel / Courtesy of Netflix /

Is May December based on Mary Kay Letourneau?

Yes, May December is loosely based on the real case of Mary Kay Letourneau, a convicted sex offender who began a sexual relationship with a minor in the late 1990s when she was 34 years old. Though the movie is not exactly based on Letourneau’s life or based on any film adaptation of it, it is inspired by her illegal relationship with Vili Fualaau.

During a press conference at the New York Film Festival in September, screenwriter Samy Burch explained why the choice was made to take inspiration from Letourneau’s case, as reported by People Magazine:

"“I really wanted a fictional story that dealt with this tabloid culture of the ’90s that has kind of seemingly led into this true-crime biopic world we’re in now, and kind of question that transition and why we want to keep recreating these stories. That was the real jumping-off point for me.”"

Moore took inspiration from the real-life Letourneau for her performance as Gracie, including when constructing her voice. But while Letourneau did have a distinct voice, the Academy Award-winning actress took it a step further and really leaned into a lisp. While touching on the voice Moore does in May December, director Todd Haynes shared: “To be honest, there were things in kind of a loose upper palate that we did find interesting in Mary Kay Letourneau’s speech that was a kick-off for her. And [Moore] took it further.”

May December
May December. (L to R) Natalie Portman as Elizabeth Berry and Julianne Moore as Gracie Atherton-Yoo in May December. Cr. Francois Duhamel / courtesy of Netflix /

Mary Kay Letourneau was Vili Fualaau’s teacher

In May December, Gracie and Joe met when working together at a pet shop. It’s explained that they would have sexual relations in a storage room, which is how they were eventually caught. The real-life people behind the case, however, actually met at an elementary school in Seattle. Mary Kay Letourneau was Vili Fualaau’s teacher twice; once when he was in second grade in 1991 and again when he was in sixth grade in 1996.

According to, Letourneau would help Fualaau with his drawing and Fualaau even became friends with Letourneau’s son Steve Jr. This is somewhat similar to the story we get in May December; while Gracie was never Joe’s teacher, Joe was friends with Gracie’s son Georgie, something that understandably caused trauma for Georgie when the scandal came out. Letourneau and Fualaau’s relationship turned sexual in June 1996.

The age gap was really that big

Though Gracie and Joe were aged up by a year in May December, their age gap is the same as Letourneau and Fualaau’s. In the movie, Gracie was 35 and Joe was 13 when they started seeing each other sexually, while Letourneau was 34 and Fualaau was 12.

During an interview on Australia’s Channel 7 show Sunday Night in 2018, Letourneau claimed she didn’t know having sex with a minor was illegal. As reported by People Magazine, she said she still believed she was wrongfully convicted, explaining: “If someone had told me, if anyone had told me, there is a specific law that says this is a crime I did not know.”

May December
May December, L to R: Julianne Moore as Gracie Atherton-Yoo with Charles Melton as Joe. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix /

Letourneau was caught by her husband

As mentioned, Gracie and Joe were caught in the movie by someone walking into the storage room and seeing them engaging in sexual acts. For Letourneau and Fualaau, however, the story is a bit more complicated. In June 1996, Letourneau and Fualaau were confronted by police after they were discovered in a parked car together by a marina “under suspicious circumstances.” They lied and said Fualaau was 18 years old, and although they were taken to the station, they were later released after a phone call to Fualaau’s mother was made.

In February 1997, Letourneau’s husband Steve found love letters between his wife and Fualaau, and he decided to confide in a relative about the situation. This relative then tipped off the authorities and Letourneau was arrested for second-degree child rape and later released on bail. At the time of her arrest, Letourneau was pregnant with Fualaau’s baby.

Letourneau gave birth in prison

As referenced in the movie, Letourneau actually did give birth in prison. Her and Fualaau’s first child, a daughter named Audrey, was born in May 1997 while Letourneau was out on bail awaiting her sentence. She was then sentenced to six months in jail (which then changed to three months) on a plea bargain and was not allowed to see Fualaau. She served the three months and was released in January 1998. However, it didn’t take long for her to be caught with Fualaau, in a car again. Letourneau was arrested for violating the no-contact order.

Letourneau became pregnant at some point before her second sentencing, where she was ordered to seven and a half years behind bars. She then gave birth to her and Fualaau’s second child, a daughter named Georgia, while in jail in October 1998.

In May December, Gracie and Joe have three kids, including one set of twins.

May December
May December, L to R: Elizabeth Yu as Mary Atherton-Yoo, Natalie Portman as Elizabeth Berry & Julianne Moore as Gracie Atherton-Yoo. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix /

Letourneau and Fualaau got married and then separated

Letourneau served her second sentence in jail and was released in August 2004. Fualaau was 21 at the time and requested a removal of the no-contact order, which was granted. In May 2005, Letourneau and Fualaau got married at a winery in Washington, in a ceremony attended by about 250 guests. Letourneau was 43 while Fualaau was 22. Their two daughters served as flower girls and as reported by People Magazine, a former roommate of Letourneau’s said of the event: “There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.”

Though Letourneau and Fualaau seemed happy for a while, Fualaau filed for separation in 2017. The couple attempted to fix their marriage and Fualaau even withdrew his filing at one point, but they eventually called it quits for good. Their legal separation was finalized in 2019, with sources telling People Magazine at the time: “They don’t hate each other. But they’re both looking forward to getting on with their lives and moving forward.”

In May December, Gracie and Joe get married but they do not separate — at least as much as we see. The movie explores Joe’s coming to terms with the trauma Gracie caused him through her abuse, and though he tries to talk to her about it, she shuts him down. It wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility to think Joe would separate from Gracie after the events of the movie, especially given the fact that he has an affair.

Letourneau died in 2020

One of the biggest differences between May December and the true story it’s inspired by is that Letourneau passed away in 2020 after a battle with cancer. She was 58 at the time of her death. Though they were separated, Fualaau was still by Letourneau’s side as she died, and he made sure her children were present as well. In an interview on The Dr. Oz Show, as reported by TODAY, Fualaau recalled her final moments, saying he would count in between the pauses of her breaths.

"“And I turned off her breathing machine just to hear if she was breathing just really soft, and at that moment, I had to, you know, tell the kids that they need to call the rest of the siblings to come and say their goodbyes. This is it.”"

Letourneau left her estate to her ex-husband and their two daughters. “She loved Vili to the end,” a source told People Magazine at the time. “She had built a life with him, and he deserved to inherit what little she had.”

May December
May December, Charles Melton as Joe. Cr. François Duhamel / Courtesy of Netflix /

The relationship really took a toll on Fualaau

Though Letourneau and Fualaau appeared to live a happy life together, at the end of the day Fualaau was raped, and as he grew older he started to become depressed. After Letourneau was sentenced to prison, Fualaau’s family sued the school district and police department for letting the illegal relationship happen under their noses. As reported by ABC News, Fualaau said in his deposition at age 18 that he was unhappy with all of the media attention he and the children were receiving, also claiming he was no longer in love with Letourneau. He shared that he suffered from “suicidal depression” and was being treated for substance abuse.

The Seattle Times reported in 2001 that Fualaau suffered from terrible nightmares, along with the alcohol problem he developed. He tried to take his own life in March 1999. More recently, Fualaau was arrested for a DUI in 2021. We sincerely hope he’s doing better now, especially considering he welcomed another baby into the world in 2022, though the trauma he went through wouldn’t be easy to heal from for anyone.

Fualaau expanded his family in November 2022 with another daughter named Sophia. His daughter Georgia shared a photo to her Instagram, as reported by People Magazine, writing in the caption: “Hi Sophia, I’m your big sister! You’re so beautiful, I can’t wait to watch you grow. I’ll be right here by your side no matter what ! I love you [heart emoji].” At this time, we do not know who the mother of Fualaau’s daughter is. As reported this September, Georgia is expecting her first child, which will be Fualaau’s first grandchild.

In May December, Joe’s life begins to change once he starts examining his relationship with Gracie and potentially realizes he was taken advantage of. A lot of his childhood and the start of adulthood were stolen from him. There’s an incredibly upsetting scene in which Joe, played by Charles Melton, starts crying when watching his kids at their high school graduation, looking over from outside a fence. If Melton doesn’t get a Best Supporting Actor nomination at the Academy Awards, I will be shocked. He’s that great! He brings such a subtle sadness to the part that will stay with you for a while.

Letourneau and Fualaau’s story is one you’ll never forget once you read about it, and May December is a compelling retelling of some of the events with a lot to say. I highly recommend it.

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