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While their relationship wasn’t exactly normalized per se, it still wasn’t treated the way it would be today. Letourneau graced the cover of People magazine in 1998 with her and Fualaau’s first child, the tabloid calling their relationship a “tryst” built on “obsessive love.” Letourneau appeared doe-eyed and slightly sad on the cover, as though the whole ordeal had been blown out of proportion.
Initially, Fualaau himself rebuffed the idea that he was a victim, telling the Seattle Times (via Vox) that “my life is going to be fine. Mary didn’t harm me in any way. Who are they to say I’m too young to know anything when they don’t even know me?” But just as the fictionalized Joe starts to question his relationship in May December, it seems something similar may have happened with Fualaau. The real-life couple married in 2005 after Letourneau was released from prison and they stayed together for over a decade before separating in 2019. In a 2006 People magazine profile of the pair, Fualaau confessed that he didn’t really know where he fit into Letourneau’s family—her children from her previous marriage were around his age. He also struggled with alcoholism and depression at the time and was arrested for driving under the influence.
May December seems to intentionally echo these situations, right down to the fact that the film is a period piece set in the late 2010s following the fictional Gracie’s arrest in the early 1990s. And it is in this era that Melton’s Joe begins to second-guess his devotion to Gracie and whether he is actually an equal in his marriage or still the young boy being asked to tend to a woman whose power dominates their relationship. Similarly, May December takes its time, just as the media slowly did, in coming around to acknowledge the consequences Gracie’s actions had on her own adult children, whom Natalie Portman‘s Elizabeth gradually meets over the course of the story.
Despite their separation, the real Fualaau stayed by Letourneau’s side as she passed away from cancer in 2020. She left most of her estate to him in her will and he voiced grief for her loss in an interview with Dr. Oz, telling him that he felt like he lost his “best friend.”
While Letourneau did suffer from bipolar disorder that doesn’t excuse her actions. She and Fualaau were not “star-crossed lovers,” nor was Fualaau “lucky” for being coerced into adult situations. May December does take some liberties with the version of the story it tells, but Charles Melton’s performance helps the film feel grounded and serves as a chilling reminder of what it must have been like for Fualaau to process this “relationship” as an adult.