The Memo: New release ‘May December’ harks back to a bygone era in child protection law

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New release ‘May December’ harks back to a bygone era in child protection law

Tyler Rigby – 16 October 2023

Todd Haynes’ thrilling drama May December is currently doing the rounds at the London Film Festival to favourable reviews. The film follows the story of an actress (Natalie Portman) who arrives to do research on an individual she plans to play in a film - Julianne Moore’s Gracie, whom years ago was embroiled in a scandal. The film covers Gracie’s history, in which she became a sexual predator by engaging in a relationship with an underage teenage boy who she later married and had children with.

If this sounds familiar at all, it’s because it was based on the true-life story of Washington teacher Mary Kay Letourneau, who committed statutory rape of her 12-year-old student Vili Fualaau before developing a long-lasting relationship with him. After initially being arrested the for rape, she gave birth to the pairs’ first child in 1997. Letourneau had, at first, shown remorse, indicating that the crime had been committed in ignorance, and her regret translated to a 3-month jail sentence plus probation. Yet soon after her release she was caught with Fualaau again, falling pregnant a second time, and this time landed herself a 7-and-a-half-year prison sentence. On her release from the stricter sentence, Fualaau petitioned to have the no-contact order reversed, which was granted. The two got married and remained together for 10 years before Fualaau filed for separation.

Despite the fact that children of 12 are rightly considered incapable of providing informed consent in the eyes of the law, the pair consistently maintained that they were mutually and consensually in love. Here in the UK, the maximum sentence for the statutory rape of a child under the age of 13 is up to 14 years in prison, and given it is an indictable offence, cases often result in the maximum sentencing. Had the events transpired today, Letourneau would be highly unlikely to receive a mere 3-month sentence and the opportunity to reoffend a second time.

Of course, it might be pointed out that Haynes and screenwriter Samy Burch are simply exercising artistic license, and the similarities are purely coincidental. But Haynes has confirmed May December is inspired by Letourneau’s story, going as far to describe Moore’s commitment to replicating a lisp that Letourneau possessed in real life. Letourneau passed away from colon cancer in 2020.