Films and stories of all kinds in some way, either large or small, infuse some truth into them. This may be a real-world scenario, a person, or perhaps a fear the collective audience shares. It’s remarkable how the tool of the story can invoke such a reaction where the viewer can attach its meaning or voice to something outside the screen. Netflix’s May December has done that job and then some. People have notably taken to the comedic and soap opera feel of the “we’re out of hot dogs” scene in the beginning, paired with the dramatic piano of Marcelo Zarvos. Soon after, a lot of that melts into the background, and a cloud of gray forms between three people. One is from Elizabeth (Natalie Portman), who takes method acting to another level and still enters this place of exile with a certain amount of detachment. The ongoing investigation accumulating with the transformation deciding the love note at the film’s end has a sinister feel. Like plots themselves, actors have an uncanny ability to contort themselves. In this case, May December sometimes feels like a mirror of the real-life Mary Kay Letourneau case.

Gracie and Joe (Charles Melton) are in a protective cocoon of exile, fighting off uncomfortable realizations. There’s a significant level of disassociation with Gracie to accept any accountability for her grooming and sexual assault. She even pawns off that Joe was the initiator of the improper relationship (how can a 13-year-old even do this)? Throughout May December, Joe is a waking limb — coming to the realization of everything taken from him. In the moment’s immediacy, the ability to have a healthy relationship with someone his age. Then, there’s the heartbreaking relationship of seeing his kids grow up while trying to keep the equilibrium of being a father, knowing he missed out on their living moments. You only get one chance to experience walking across the aisle at high school graduation with your friends — it’s precisely why Joe breaks down. It’s an empty nest with the person who won’t even acknowledge their role in abusing him.

May December, L to R: Natalie Portman as Elizabeth Berry with Julianne Moore as Gracie Atherton-Yoo. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix

Imagine watching this film, living a somewhat identical experience, and living through this ordeal all over again. Even if the main crux veers into fiction, that can’t feel good. A now 40-year-old Vili Fualaau spoke about how he was offended by the project and dismayed that he wasn’t consulted. As noted by screenwriter Sammy Burch, May December is a fictitious story, but drew upon the tabloid culture frenzy of the 1990s, which voraciously chronicled Mary Kay Letourneau and Vili Fualaau’s story. Director Todd Haynes also mentioned that Julliane Moore’s lisp with Gracie’s character is inspired by how the late Letourneau spoke. Haynes, per The Hollywood Reporter, said it was informative to research the case, even if the story differed. While this is a theatrical entity, it’s hard not to see and draw the specific parallels between the characters and those involved.

It would be wrong to dismiss Fualaau’s feelings, especially seeing how some of the main pieces are identical to how his life played out. The film directly pulls from the 2018 interview with Letourneau and Fualaau by 7News. The thorniness of the material has provoked a rash of emotions and implores us to review our stigmas and fortify our sense of right and wrong. Perhaps note the complex nature of everyone affected by the choice of a grown-up. It wasn’t just Gracie; it was her prior family and the children she had with Joe who had to navigate the gravity of her choices — the same Vili is doing now. In watching May December again, my view of Elizabeth became more entrenched. While she’s looking for the next big break, her character is a metaphor for Hollywood itself. Like much of the true-crime craze currently flooding the dams of content, Elizabeth only stays for a defined period. She visits the places of the transgressions, mimics voices and physical mechanics, and even feeds upon Joe’s sad naivety (much like Gracie did).

Once the camera ends and the scenes are done, Elizabeth and the Hollywood machine shed the story’s skin; they get to move on to the next thing. They feel very few residual effects (aside from a possible backlash and bad reviews). For Gracie and especially Joe, it’s a house of horrors they can never leave. This is why we have to understand and level with the feelings of Fualaau. The beauty of why the art form of film prevails is that there are so many different reactions to one two-hour experience. They make us laugh, cry, and reason with the human nature inside of us. While entertainment value exists inside May December, the collateral damage of the relationship it stands in tandem with is anything but fake.