May December Ending Explained & Plot Analysis

Playing someone else’s life: the plot of the film and the real story of May December (2023): the meaning of the film, plot summary, explanation of the ending, description of the real story, analysis, similar films.

Country: USA

Genre: drama

Year of production: 2023

Director: Todd Haynes

Actors: Natalie Portman, Julianne Moore, Charles Melton

Slogan: “What will playing into someone else’s life lead to?”

Awards and nominations. The film received several nominations for the Golden Globe and a nomination for the Palme d’Or. The film was also nominated for an Oscar in the Best Screenplay category.

Todd Haynes is a wonderful, subtle director with a recognizable style. Now he has presented to our attention a complex, intelligent picture about the scandalous history of the relationship between a teacher and a student.

It is difficult to say unequivocally what the meaning of the film “May December” is. In essence, this film is an attempt to look at the story of good and evil, as old as time, through the prism of human choices.

Based on real events

The plot of the film is based on the story of Vili Fualaau and his wife Mary Kay Letourneau. It all started in 1996. Mary Kay was 34 years old. She was married and raised four children. Vili was 12 years old and attended the same school where Letourneau worked.

Charles Melton, Julianne Moore of the film May December
Starring Charles Melton (Joe) and Julianne Moore (Gracie Atherton). Still from the film May December

Vili was a tall, strong teenager and looked older than his age. Initially, Mary Kay was just his favorite teacher, but as he entered puberty, he suddenly saw her as an attractive woman. One day they went for a ride and, according to Letourneau, “couldn’t help themselves.” The couple was discovered by the police… Mary Kay faced a serious sentence, but the sentence was commuted – not least because Vili’s mother suddenly stood up for her. True, she did not suspect anything and trusted the teacher.

It soon became clear that the woman was pregnant with a boy. Oddly enough, Mary Kay gave birth to a healthy child. After leaving prison, she again met Vili, without whom, according to her, she had no reason to live. Two weeks later, the police arrested Letourneau again and this time she was imprisoned for 7.5 years. In prison, she gave birth to another child, who was given to Vili’s family to be raised. The teenager was not very happy with the idea of ​​raising two children, but he had no choice. After dropping out of school, he went to work in construction. Oddly enough, he did not break the connection with Letourneau and even visited her in prison.

In 2004, Mary Kay was released, and a year later she and Vili legalized their relationship. Their marriage could not be called happy: Fualaau often said that he married a former teacher only because he wanted his children to have a normal family. Mary Kay had a different interpretation of events: in her opinion, she and her young husband shared a great and sincere love.

It is noteworthy that Wily always got angry when the media called him a victim. The answer to his dissatisfaction is that, according to him, he himself was the initiator of the novel. According to one version, he did this after an argument with a friend – he was sure that Vili would never dare to kiss the “teacher”. The guy won the argument…

It is noteworthy that in 2017, Vili filed for divorce, but then withdrew the papers. However, he had been in another relationship for a long time and Mary Kay knew about it. In 2019, he brought the matter to an end, but a year later he returned to care for his ex-wife, who was diagnosed with terminal cancer. She died in his arms at the age of 58.

What is the movie about

Brief description of the contents of the picture. Actress Elizabeth Berry comes to Savannah, Georgia to meet the woman she will play in the film. Many years ago, then 36-year-old Gracie (that’s the woman’s name) entered into an intimate relationship with her 13-year-old student Joe. For this she suffered a severe punishment, but did not betray herself: after leaving prison, she married a matured chosen one. After 23 years of marriage, the couple already has three children – student Honor and twin graduates Charlie and Mary.

In addition to her own heroine, Elizabeth is sincerely interested in Joe. A shy young man works as a doctor and has a touching hobby – he raises monarch butterflies. According to Elizabeth, who is trying to understand how this could happen, there is some “quiet confidence” in him. However, Joe himself doesn’t seem to think so.

One day Joe and Elizabeth are alone. Suddenly a spark runs between them and the young woman, in a fit of emotion, kisses him. “You’re young,” she says, looking at him with either tenderness or sympathy, “you can still start over.” They have a pleasant time, after which a slightly dumbfounded Joe admits that for the first time in many years he succumbed to feelings. Already married, he fell in love several times, but he could not leave his wife and children.

It becomes clear to Elizabeth that, in fact, only a sense of duty keeps him close to Gracie. The actress tries to convince him that if he leaves his wife, she will understand everything. However, Joe is sure: Gracie will not survive the “betrayal”.

“You are responsible only for yourself,” Elizabeth convinces, although it has already become clear to her what’s what: the guy himself first of all needs this codependent relationship. He is afraid of losing Gracie because he doesn’t know what he will do without her. The fact is that for him, a half-orphan, she became not only a mistress – to some extent, the former teacher (no matter how blasphemous it may sound) replaced his mother…

Natalie Portman of the film May December
Natalie Portman as Elizabeth Berry, Julianne Moore as Gracie Atherton. Still from the film May December

Returning home, the young man tries to talk to his wife about their relationship. “I was too young,” he says timidly, to which Gracie confidently retorts: he was the one who seduced her. And then the woman begins to become hysterical.

On the morning of graduation, one of Joe’s butterflies leaves its cocoon, and he releases it into the wild. A little later, his and Gracie’s children are “graduated” and, watching this, Joe cries.

Elizabeth is about to leave. Saying goodbye to her, Gracie asks if she understood her and, having received an affirmative answer, smiles contentedly…

May December Ending explained

Explanation of the ending of the picture. In the finale, Elizabeth arrives on the set and work on the film begins. Having completely gotten used to the role, she tells the director that, in her opinion, everything is going as it should.

The meaning of the ending of the film “May December” is quite simple: for Elizabeth, everything that happened between Gracie and Joe became just another story that needs to be transferred to the screen. Hardly anything will change in the relationship between the spouses – they depend on each other, they are connected by a dark past, and neither he nor she will be able to simply forget what happened and start living from scratch.

This is probably what caused Joe’s tears at his children’s graduation. His favorite butterflies have left their cocoons. Perhaps a happier future awaits them…

Elizabeth Yu of the film May December
Actress Elizabeth Yu starred as Mary. Still from the film May December

The meaning of the film May December

“May – December” is an English expression with a hidden meaning. It describes a romantic relationship between people with a large age difference. May symbolizes youth, and December symbolizes old age.

It is precisely such relationships that are the central theme of Todd Haynes’s film, but there is no romance in it – it is a thing of the distant past. However, was she?…

Towards the middle of the film, it becomes clear that all the heroes of the story are completely traumatized people. Gracie is stuck in the past, never realizing her guilt. She looks like a big child who every now and then falls into hysterics and is offended by the whole world. According to viewers who analyzed the film, the screenwriter even chose a name that was not quite adult. Tender, diminutive and caressing, it seems to emphasize the infantilism of the heroine.

However, at the same time Gracie is a powerful and cunning manipulator. She wants to look good on screen, not truthful. In life she has received enough negativity associated with an affair with a teenager, and therefore in the cinema she wants to get something like rehabilitation of her image. Elizabeth faces a very difficult task. This is due to the fact that Gracie is not entirely sincere with her – she holds herself confidently, but “behind the scenes” she really wants to be weak. She is trying to place responsibility for everything that happened on her husband…

Dee Double Moffett of the film May December
Dee Double Moffett played the role of Tom Atherton. Still from the film May December

Through small dialogues and everyday situations, the filmmakers emphasize the abnormality of what happened. They seem to sound the alarm and shout: there is no romance here and there cannot be. Because we are talking here about a long-term tragedy and this is not a story of love, but of a crime and its consequences.

Joe’s figure certainly arouses interest. On the one hand, this is a sort of Peter Pan stuck at the age of thirteen: he did not understand childhood and adolescence in their correct understanding, did not see a normal life, and therefore never grew up in essence. But, on the other hand, this man was forced to grow up too early. The fact remains that he was seduced by an adult woman and made a great sacrifice. In his youth, this sacrifice was unconscious, but over the years it formed into a specific goal – to provide his children with an easy and happy childhood, which he himself did not have…

“May December” is a beautiful, subtle drama in which the tragedies of the past and present are intertwined. We watch two people stuck in an abusive relationship, and throughout the entire film we cannot decide what to do – sympathize with them or condemn them. It is also unclear whether there is any point at all in the sudden exhumation of a scandalous past. If she can help Joe and Gracie finally flutter out of the pupated everyday life of the present, good. And if not?..

It is really difficult to understand what the essence of the film is. Almost constantly in the background there is criticism of the new ethics, in which the pedophile is not always a villain and, in general, “not everything is so simple.” However, this picture does not tolerate radical opinions; it does not expose or stigmatize anyone. The director simply allows this situation to be: in his opinion, what happened is already history. It will not be possible to correct it, let alone erase it.

heroine and actress of the film May December
Still from the film May December

Similar films

Here are several films that are somewhat similar in meaning to the film “May December”:

  • “Scandalous Diary” (UK, 2006). Sheba Hart, a teacher working in a “difficult” school, enters into a relationship with one of her students. Soon another teacher will find out about this…
  • “Thar” (USA, 2022). Conductor and composer Lydia Tar leads the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. One day her almost impeccable reputation is under threat.
  • The Reader (USA, Germany, 2008). At a young age, Michael entered into an intimate relationship with an adult woman. 40 years later he still remembers her…
  • “The Stranger’s Daughter” (USA UK Israel Greece, 2021). English teacher Leda is spending her holidays away from her loved ones. One day she meets Nina…
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