What to know about the controversial real-life relationship between Mary Kay Letourneau and Vili Fualaau that loosely inspired 'May December'

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What to know about the controversial real-life relationship between Mary Kay Letourneau and Vili Fualaau that loosely inspired 'May December'
Left: Mary Kay Letourneau and Vili Fualaau in April 2006. Right: Julianne Moore and Charles Melton in "May December."Ron Wurzer/Getty Images; Netflix
  • The film "May December" centers on an inappropriate relationship between two characters.
  • Aspects of the story are similar to the real-life scandal involving Mary Kay Letourneau and Vili Fualaau.
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Todd Haynes' latest film "May December" is now streaming on Netflix, and its similarities to the real-life sexual abuse scandal between Mary Kay Letourneau and Vili Fualaau are evident.

"May December" centers on an actor named Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman), who travels to Savannah, Georgia to spend time with Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore) and her husband, Joe Atherton-Yoo (Charles Melton), in preparation to play Gracie in an upcoming movie based on their inappropriate romance. As Elizabeth pries into their age-gap relationship and more details emerge, the story's parallels to Letourneau and Fualaau become even more obvious.

Here's everything to know about how "May December" loosely draws inspiration from Letourneau and Fualaau's controversial relationship.

In 'May December,' Gracie and Joe's inappropriate relationship started in the '90s when she was 36 and he was 13

What to know about the controversial real-life relationship between Mary Kay Letourneau and Vili Fualaau that loosely inspired 'May December'
Julianne Moore as Gracie Atherton-Yoo and Charles Melton as Joe Yoo in "May December."Courtesy of Netflix

"May December" is set in 2015, as Gracie and Joe, 36, are preparing to become empty nesters once their twins graduate from high school.

They live a relatively peaceful life in the suburbs, but about 20 years ago, their story was splashed across tabloids. At the time, Gracie, then 36 years old and married with three kids, was found having a sexual relationship with Joe, a seventh grader, in the closet of a pet shop they both worked at.

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Gracie was arrested, gave birth to their first child while in prison, and was registered as a sex offender in Georgia. She and Joe got married and welcomed two more kids together, twins named Mary and Charlie.

In "May December," neither Gracie nor Joe questions the nature of their relationship.

As a coping mechanism, Gracie avoids dwelling on the past and sees her naivete as a "gift." She doesn't have shame or guilt regarding her predatory actions and didn't grasp the severity of the situation when her affair was discovered.

Joe knows that people see him as the victim, but he says he felt seen by Gracie when they met. He justifies their continued relationship by saying that they wouldn't be together for nearly 24 years if they weren't happy together.

It's not until later in the movie that Joe reassesses their dynamic and tells Gracie that perhaps he was too young to make such adult decisions. She counters that Joe had the power in the relationship and he seduced her.

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In real life, Letourneau was a schoolteacher who served more than seven years in prison after pleading guilty to second-degree rape of then-underage Fualaau

What to know about the controversial real-life relationship between Mary Kay Letourneau and Vili Fualaau that loosely inspired 'May December'
Mary Kay Letourneau and Vili Fualaau in April 2006.Ron Wurzer/Getty Images

Like the couple at the center of "May December," Letourneau and Fualaau's relationship was a major scandal in the '90s.

Letourneau was Fualaau's second and sixth grade teacher in Washington state. Their relationship turned sexual in summer 1996, when Fualaau, then 12 years old, completed sixth grade. At the time, Letourneau was 34 and had four children with then-husband Steve Letourneau.

In the years since the scandal, Letourneau had insisted that she was unaware that her and Fualaau's relationship was illegal. In a TV special that aired on A&E in 2018 titled "Mary Kay Letourneau: Autobiography," she said that there was "nothing going on at all when he was a student of mine."

Letourneau was arrested in 1997 and gave birth to their first child together, a daughter named Audrey, in May of that year. She pleaded guilty to statutory rape for a reduced sentence and was released on parole after serving three months, with the stipulation that she'd have no contact with Fualaau. Within weeks, she violated the conditions of her sentence by seeing him.

In February 1998, Letourneau, 35, was sent back to prison to serve the full term of seven years after a police officer found her and Fualaau, 14, together in a car near her home.

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What to know about the controversial real-life relationship between Mary Kay Letourneau and Vili Fualaau that loosely inspired 'May December'
Mary Kay Letourneau in February 1998.Alan Berner/AP; Pool; File

Their second child, a daughter named Georgia, was born in Ocotber 1998 while Letourneau was in prison. Letourneau was released in August 2004 and subsequently registered as a sex offender in Washington. Fualaau, then 21 and no longer a minor, petitioned and got the no-contact order removed.

Letourneau and Fualaau married at the Columbia Winery in Woodinville, Washington in May 2005. Fualaau filed for separation in 2017 and their divorce was finalized two years later.

Letourneau died of stage 4 colon cancer on July 6, 2020. She was 58 years old. During an interview on "The Dr. Oz Show" three months later, Fualaau said that he was by Letourneau's side with two of her children when she died.

"The last thing she told me is that I am the most important person to her and that everything is gonna be OK," Fualaau recalled.

What to know about the controversial real-life relationship between Mary Kay Letourneau and Vili Fualaau that loosely inspired 'May December'
Vili Fualaau in April 2006.Ron Wurzer/Getty Images

"May December" director Haynes previously told The Daily Beast that he tried to focus on the distinctions of screenwriter Samy Burch's script, but inevitably thought about the comparisons to Letourneau's story. He also confirmed that Gracie's lisp was inspired by Letourneau's speech.

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Burch, for her part, hedges when asked if Letourneau's life inspired the fictional events of "May December" during a press conference held in September as part of the New York Film Festival, which Business Insider attended.

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

When pressed about whether she followed the Letourneau case as it unfolded in the '90s, Burch joked, "I'm a baby, so I actually don't know what you're talking about."

"All of these stories like this that are in the ether are just completely embedded in everyone's cultural history," she said.

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