I’ve been thinking a lot about The Lisp. If you’ve watched director Todd Haynes’ unsettling new drama May December, now streaming on Netflix, then you know exactly to which I’m referring: the uncomfortably babyish, swollen-tongued accent Julianne Moore’s character, Gracie Atherton-Yoo, puts on (or lets out) whenever her surroundings grow a key too dissonant for her ears. She’s heard so much noise since her tabloid tale cracked open in the ’90s; the lisp pops up whenever she feels a need to tune out the broadcast. The issue with her strategy, as Haynes repeatedly demonstrates atop the foundation of Samy Burch’s excellent screenplay, is that there’s a lot Gracie needs to hear, and to which she refuses to listen.
The lisp itself, like much of May December, is a fabrication, a warped-mirror version of real-life details that infuse the film with its brutal ache. Gracie Atherton-Yoo is loosely based on Mary Kay Letourneau, the Seattle-area schoolteacher who, in 1997, pled guilty to two counts of secondary rape after she was discovered in a sexual relationship with her 13-year-old student. (She would give birth to two of his children before he turned 15.) This student was eventually revealed as Vili Fualaau, and he—like Joe (Charles Melton), Gracie’s husband in May December—would go on to marry Letourneau, their partnership lasting nearly 15 years before they divorced in 2019. Soon after, Letourneau died of cancer at the age of 58.
Although Letourneau did not speak with a distinct lisp, she did have what Haynes described at May December’s New York Film Festival premiere as “kind of a loose upper palate that we did find interesting,” adding that Moore “took it further” for the role of Gracie. She takes it all the much further in scenes where Gracie feels destabilized, such as when Joe confronts her on the issues they haven’t discussed, “maybe ever.” She shuts this line of questioning down immediately, her lisp intensifying as she insists, “You seduced me. Who was in charge?”
It’s this same lisp that Natalie Portman’s character, the TV actress Elizabeth Berry, employs as a sort of portal into Gracie herself. At the start of May December, Elizabeth is preparing to portray Gracie in a film adaptation of the latter’s life and scandal. Near the film’s end, we watch Elizabeth rehearse a long monologue lifted from an old love letter from Gracie to Joe. Her use of Gracie’s lisp is constant and cartoonish. Elizabeth, a predatory and second-rate actress, mischaracterizes Gracie’s lisp as an affect to parrot, rather than an insight into the latter’s fissuring veneer. Haynes utilizes the lisp as its own meta-critique, representative of the many nuances missed when an outsider fixates on the simplest version of a story.
This is also why May December is careful not to color in the exact same lines as the Letourneau scandal, often side-eyeing its tabloid origins with bleak humor. The characters’ names are changed; they live across the country, in Georgia rather than Washington; Gracie is a baker, not a schoolteacher; she and Joe met as pet-shop employees, not as teacher and student. In the film’s final scene, Elizabeth, as Gracie, visibly lusts over the actor playing Joe while she slides a pet snake into his arms, promising the creature won’t bite because it’s “not that kind of snake.” This is all very funny, and not funny at all.
As Burch told the Motion Picture Association in an interview, “There was a conscious effort to fictionalize this with all the little details. The big-picture details are similar, but I wanted to invent names, places, their history, their families, their jobs.” She similarly told Vogue that “the reckoning we’ve had where, one by one, those stories have been mined and relooked at—sometimes for the better, sometimes not—has been very interesting to me.” Her May December script demonstrates a clear sense of responsibility not to Letourneau or even necessarily to Fualaau, but to the ways in which the phenomenon of their scandal mirrors our current true-crime obsession. Very few people are innocent in May December, as Joe himself mourns in another funny-not-funny scene during which he smokes marijuana and tells his son, between sobs, “I feel like everything’s so fucked up.”
Gracie or Elizabeth are perhaps the most obvious perpetrators, and Haynes and Burch don’t seek to forgive them any more than to pardon Letourneau. But they are equally interested in implicating those of us watching, as well as those of us googling (and writing) stories like this one, probing into the film’s tabloid origins. It’s all meant to make us more than a little queasy. As Haynes told Vulture, “The response to May December, so far, has made me feel like people want to be—are there to be—confused and disturbed and uncertain about what they think about movies again. And I love that, because that’s always what movies should do to you.”
Letourneau put forth a number of stories to the media back in the ’90s, both before and after Fualaau could speak for himself. She informed Oprah Winfrey that “I think, with all certainty, this young man is the love of my life,” and the Seattle Times reported that she referred to the boy as “my best friend. We just walked together in the same rhythm.” Years later, Fualaau himself insisted “at the end of the day, it was a real love story,” though he added, “A lot of things that should have gone through my mind at the time weren’t going through my mind.”
After Letourneau died, Fualauu sat down for an emotional 2020 interview with Dr. Oz, during which he shared how much he missed his ex-wife. He referred to her as “the only person that actually cared, considering my upbringing and her upbringing. A lot of things just made sense for the both of us in the way things happened.” He admitted he used to “question” if she was a pedophile, but that “there was no perversion” in their relationship or in Letourneau’s history. “There’s nothing I can say to people that don’t care to listen or don’t care to learn,” he added. Still, when asked what he would do if he—now in his 30s—found himself attracted to a minor, Fualaau replied, “I’d probably go and seek some help.”
So many of these nuances—the bond felt between Gracie and Joe; the love for their children; Joe’s gut-wrenching internal conflict over what happened to him; Gracie’s coping mechanisms, including her manner of speaking—indeed spin from the same spool as the real Letourneau-Fualauu story. But May December doesn’t pretend to replicate that exact story, nor its precise conditions. Instead, the film takes a sideways approach, and in doing so bounces the confusion and discomfort right back to the audience. It dares you, like Elizabeth, to mistake The Lisp for what’s “real.”
Lauren Puckett-Pope is a staff culture writer at ELLE, where she primarily covers film, television and books. She was previously an associate editor at ELLE.