“May December” Probes the Dark Assumptions Behind a Tabloid Scandal

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Not long into “May December,” the slinky new Netflix movie directed by Todd Haynes and written by Samy Burch and Alex Mechanik, you start to get a bad feeling. The melodramatic piano music has put you on edge, as have the visible damp of the Savannah air and the oak trees dripping with moss. A family is hosting a party at their sprawling waterfront house. Gracie Atherton (Julianne Moore), a striking strawberry-blond matriarch in middle age, frosts a cake. Joe Yoo (Charles Melton), a handsome, athletic man, maybe thirtysomething and Asian in appearance, tends an enormous barbecue. Teen-agers, also Asian-looking, run around with their friends. Amid this reverie, a stranger arrives. Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman) has come on business: she will be playing Gracie in a film, and intends to embed with the family.

We soon learn that Gracie and Joe are married, and that their twins are about to graduate from high school. There’s an obvious age difference between the couple—a quarter century, in fact. This is a big deal only because of when they got together: Joe was in seventh grade. Elizabeth’s goal is to elevate this scandal into art and, in turn, elevate her middling “TV famous” career.

Before watching, I hadn’t known more than what was implied by the movie’s title. And though the details are obscured—the scene of the crime is a pet shop, for instance—the reference is plain. In 1997, the real-life relationship, which, even now, I’m conditioned to call an affair, was in all the tabloids. There are more accurate words—rape, for example—to describe what started as a sexual liaison between Mary Kay Letourneau, a married thirty-four-year-old schoolteacher with four young children, and Vili Fualaau, her twelve-year-old student. What complicated the story was that, after Letourneau served more than seven years in prison for rape of a minor, she and Fualaau married and raised two daughters together. They lived as a nuclear family until the couple divorced in 2019. Letourneau died of colon cancer a year later.

The saga took place in Burien, Washington, not far from Tacoma, where I attended high school. Letourneau’s televised criminal trial (remember Court TV?) seemed like scripted infotainment. We learned about her bipolar disorder; we memorized the bounce of her curls. Yet, in retrospect, it’s shocking how little attention was paid to the dynamics of race and class. Letourneau was from a wealthy white family of ultra-right Republican politicians in Orange County, California. Her father, John G. Schmitz, a John Birch extremist in Congress and the State Senate, built his career on various forms of moralizing, then got caught in an extramarital affair that had produced two secret children. Fualaau was from a working-class Samoan family that had settled in the Seattle area via Hawaii; he was raised by his mother, Soona Vili. Letourneau’s P.R. machine portrayed the boy as a seducer, the principal actor, not a victim of abuse. This was strategically possible both because little was known about Fualaau in early media coverage (he was shielded as a minor) and because Letourneau was who she was: birdlike, blond, beautiful.

When his identity was revealed, Fualaau was depicted as a tough guy. He wore muscle tanks and baggy jeans—JNCOs were popular then—and slicked back his hair like every other brown boy I knew. In the racial landscape of western Washington, Pacific Islanders were relatively numerous, but marginalized. Samoan guys were stereotyped as all physicality, all body—gangsters, dancers, or football players, like Marques Tuiasosopo, a University of Washington quarterback at the time of Letourneau’s trial. Fualaau claimed that he had bet a friend twenty bucks that he could bed Letourneau; he allegedly made the first move. “It was my idea,” he said. His supposed physical precocity served to make Letourneau less guilty. And he and his mother, who assumed guardianship of the two girls Letourneau delivered while she was in state custody, defended Letourneau. “I can’t say I hate Mary,” she said. “Looking at my granddaughters, I can’t consciously say I hate this woman.”

In the nineties, the politics around Indigenousness and U.S. colonialism were less palpable than today. But, when it comes to popular representations of Pacific Islanders, perhaps not much has changed. When you’re all body, you can be both aggressor and passive naïf. Consider Kai, the sexy native Hawaiian hula dancer in Season 1 of “The White Lotus,” who’s persuaded to commit a foolish crime by Paula, a college-age tourist who reads Frantz Fanon poolside. Or Manti Te’o, the Samoan Hawaiian football player whose sheltered existence, or gullibility, left him vulnerable to catfishing, as dissected in the Netflix documentary “Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist.”

Haynes draws on these stereotypes to explore the contours of victimization. Joe, Faulaau’s equivalent in “May December,” is not Samoan; he has a white mom and a Korean dad. This identity is mostly legible as exotic. Gracie explains, unconvincingly, that she first noticed Joe because he and his family were the only Koreans in the neighborhood. He corrects her: “Half.” Joe is tall and well built (Melton played college football), but has a pronounced stoop and tends to recede in the company of others. My colleague Richard Brody observed that Haynes keeps Joe “indeterminate nearly throughout.” Joe’s father, a widower we meet briefly on the balcony of his modest apartment, is similarly passive. Joe’s day job (X-ray technician) and hobby (raising monarch butterflies) are all about looking without being seen.

The scandal of pedophilia has relegated Gracie to the informal economy: she sells homemade cakes for a living. It isn’t clear how, on such meagre income, the family lives in upper-middle-class comfort—but that comfort is unequally distributed. Gracie is a black hole of emotion, prone to fits of weeping and jags of meanness as she body-shames her children. (Bravo to those young actors, by the way.) She’s both matriarch and domestic authoritarian, ordering Joe to move his butterfly incubators from room to room. (“What are you gonna do with your bugs?” she huffs. Her work in the pet shop apparently did not translate into a love of insects.) She rebuffs Joe’s romantic advances (“You smell like charcoal. . . . It’s stinking up the sheets”), yet demands his immediate consolation. Gracie has some of the funniest lines in this surprisingly funny film. When Elizabeth recounts how her parents told her that she was smarter than her ambition to become an actress, Gracie responds, “Are you smarter than that?”

Joe benefits from none of this humor. In his loneliness, he pursues a flirtation, via text, with another butterfly hobbyist. He also falls for Elizabeth, who takes advantage of him in her increasingly deranged embodiment of Gracie. (The mirroring of these women, often literal—they stare at themselves and each other in front of multiple mirrors—recalls Haynes’s sumptuous lesbian film “Carol.”)

I wondered whether Gracie and Joe’s decision to coöperate in the making of Elizabeth’s movie isn’t financial in nature. In real life, Letourneau and Fualaau sold and resold their story. In 1998, they published a ghostwritten memoir in France called “Un Seul Crime, L’Amour” (“The Only Crime: Love”). There was a made-for-TV movie, from 2000, “All-American Girl: The Mary Kay Letourneau Story,” on USA. They let Entertainment Tonight film their wedding, in 2005, and did an interview with Barbara Walters, in 2015. Their adult daughters appeared with them on Australian TV, in 2018. After Letourneau died, Fualaau—who was performing as DJ Headline—spoke to Dr. Oz and compared Letourneau’s death to her imprisonment: “When we had first met, I was a lot younger, and she was ripped out of my life at that time.” The family’s attempts at publicity always gave off a mix of sincere affection and desperate pragmatism. Letourneau and Fualaau seemed more interested in supporting their kids than seeking fame (or cementing infamy).

In the fantastic final scene of “May December,” Elizabeth is at last on the set of her movie, costumed as Gracie, opposite a dark-skinned boy in the role of Joe. She had vetoed other child actors for not being “sexy enough”; whatever truth she was trying to uncover in this relationship contains no nuance of race, class, or power. In the back room of the pet store, she reclines on a couch in a summery dress, her cardigan falling off her shoulder. She holds a striped snake and says, in a thick lisp, “Are you scared? It’s O.K. to be scared.” Despite her preparatory exertions in Savannah, she has ended up in what resembles a treacly porno. On take three, the director of this film-within-a-film thinks she’s nailed it. But Elizabeth begs for another try. “Can we do it again, please?” she says. “It’s getting more real.” ♦

Sourse: newyorker.com

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