Welcome to our Colossus Movie Guide for May December. This guide contains our detailed library of content covering key aspects of the movie’s plot, ending, meaning, and more. We encourage your comments to help us create the best possible guide. Thank you!
What is May December about?
On the surface, May December is a thinly veiled meditation on the relationship between Mary Kay Letourneau and Vili Fualaau that was one of the biggest stories of the 1990s. What does a relationship between a 36-year-old and a 13-year-old look like after 20 years? Especially when the kids are so close in age to their father. But there’s a whole deeper meta-commentary about filmmaking, acting, and what it means to adapt a story, which is why the movie not only ends on-set of the in-universe film about Gracie and Joe Yoo but is also why the final line spoken by Elizabeth is “Wait, can we, can we do it again, please? Please? Just for me. Please. Wait. It’s getting more real.”
Movie Guide table of contents
- Gracie Atherton-Yoo – Julianne Moore
- Joe Yoo – Charles Melton
- Georgie – Cory Michael Smith
- Mary Atherton-Yoo – Elizabeth Yu
- Charlie Atherton-Yoo – Gabriel Chung
- Honor Atherton-Yoo – D.W. Moffett
- Elizabeth Berry – Natalie Portman
- Written by – Samy Burch
- Directed by – Todd Hanyes
The ending of May December explained
The end of May December begins in the aftermath of the high school graduation ceremony for the Atherton-Yoo kids. Which follows in the aftermath of the big fight between Gracie and Joe the night before. Which was a direct result of Joe cheating on Gracie with Elizabeth. At the graduation ceremony, we see that Joe and Gracie aren’t together. Gracie had gone hunting in the morning then is in the stands with family and friends. Joe had gotten the kids ready in the morning but is off to the side, away from everyone. He sobs.
There’s a final conversation between Elizbaeth and Gracie. The two both wear white, flowing dresses. Both have big sunglasses. Their hair has been ironed straight.
Gracie: I wonder if any of this will have really mattered for your movie?
Elizabeth: I think it will.
G: You understand me?
E: I do.
G: I hope you didn’t think that disgusting brother thing was real.
G: It’s disgusting. I don’t know what [Georgie’s] doing telling you these things.
E: He told you?
G: I talk to Georgie every day.
E: [Smiles awkwardly]
G: Insecure people are very dangerous, aren’t they? I’m secure. Make sure you put that in there.
The final scene is Elizabeth filming the movie about Gracie and Joe. We start with a shot of the entire crew. Then cut to a reverse shot of the set, where Elizabeth is Gracie and an unnamed actor is Joe. They’re in the pet store where the real life couple first transgressed. They do several takes of the scene.
Elizabeth: Are you scared?
E: It’s okay to be scared.
J: I’m not.
E: She won’t bite.
J: How do you know?
E: She’s not that kind of snake.
The director tries to call cut but Elizabeth jumps up. “Wait, can we, can we do it again, please? Please? Just for me. Please. Wait. It’s getting more real.”
The reset. Except instead of the camera returning to film the scene, it zooms in on Elizabeth’s face. There’s a sense of building energy. The director calls “action” then the movie ends.
May December does a few interesting things here at the end. Let’s start with the snake that’s part of the scene Elizabeth is filming.
The snake is Gracie. Remember, the last thing Gracie says is “Insecure people are very dangerous, aren’t they? I’m secure. Make sure you put that in there.” Except it’s said in a very threatening way. And the scene just before this was Gracie with a rifle in the woods, hunting a fox. And we’re also coming off the way in which she shutdown Joe’s attempt to talk about the beginning of their relationship.
The other thing to keep in mind—Gracie is a predator. She not only slept with a 13-year-old but then cultivated a relationship with him. But she’s not the typical idea people have of a predator, right? Not the big man who jumps out from a dark shadow. Not a wolf. Not an insecure person who lashes out. She’s something different.
Which is what the dialogue of the snake alludes do. “She won’t bite.” “How do you know?” “She’s not that kind of snake.” We’re never told the snake isn’t dangerous. Just that it won’t bite. Think about Adam and Eve and the way in which the serpent convinced Eve to bite from the forbidden apple. The subtext is that while the snake isn’t physically dangerous, it can harm in other ways.
Which is what Joe tries to bring up in that climactic conversation the night before graduation. “What if I wasn’t ready to be making those kinds of decisions. Then what? Because the kids. What would that mean? …I’m saying, what if I was too young?” How does Gracie respond? By saying “You seduced me.” Which should send off alarm bells. Joe himself says exactly what the audience is thinking, “I was only 13.” And Gracie rejects that. “I don’t care.”
It’s a moment of such pure manipulation. Joe’s overwhelmed trying to fight back against the poison of Gracie’s gaslighting. It provides us a brief window into the kind of emotional blackmail he’s dealt with for decades. Something Joe hints at in his final conversation with Elizabeth, after they slept together. He tells her that Gracie is very loyal and that it would “kill her” to find out what he did. Elizabeth tries to explain that Gracie would be okay, that Joe needs to look out for himself. But he keeps arguing on Gracie’s behalf. Why? Because he’s been manipulated for 23 years.
So, yes, Gracie is the snake.
But the movie also positions Joe as the caterpillar.
In that conversation with Elizabeth, she tells Joe that he’s still so young, that he has his whole life ahead of him, that he can start over, do anything. This dovetails with his kids graduating high school. It’s the end of their childhood as they’ve known it and they’re finally heading out into the world. There’s that sense of freedom and potential. A freedom that Joe never got to experience. Because of Gracie. Because of having kids so young.
Even though Joe is older than his kids, they’re passing him by in life experience. Which is what’s causing him to have such an existential crisis throughout the film. In real life, Vili did end up divorcing Mary Kay Letourneau. The two first hooked up in 1996 and were separated in 2019. 23 years. So there’s an implication at the end of the film, when Joe doesn’t sit with Gracie at graduation, that he’s on the brink of leaving her. Especially now that the kids are out of high school. Their graduation is also, in many ways, Joe’s. He can emerge from his cocoon. Spread his wings. And fly off to see what life offers.
Reinforcing this is the last shot of Joe. We initially see him behind a fence. Walking along it. Until, finally, he reaches the end. The shot is divided in half. If Joe were on the right side of the screen, he’d be behind the fence. But he’s on the left side. In the open space. Finally. That sequence encapsulates his character journey. Trapped behind the fence of Gracie. Then ready to go free.
If you want to get even more extra, there’s a similarity between seeing his kids walk across the stage to receive their diploma and Joe’s walk to the end of the fence. Both move from the right side of the screen to the left side.
The meta commentary
So you have Elizabeth preparing to make this movie about Gracie and Joe. Except Julianne Moore and Charlie Melton are actually actors playing Mary Kay Letourneau and Vili Fualaau. Meaning Julianne Moore is essentially Elizabeth, the character Natalie Portman plays. So you have these layers of Julianne Moore depicting Mary Kay. Then Natalie Portman essentially plays Julianne Moore preparing to play MKL.
The real Mary Kay Letourneau passed away in 2020 (cancer) so Julianne Moore didn’t actually go following anyone. May December isn’t that meta. But you have the spirit of Julianne Moore and Charlie Melton trying to figure out who these people were and are. And how do you bring that into the film while still making a fictional movie that entertains people and makes them think? The movie is about that dynamic. But also about filmmaking. And what it means to make a movie.
What’s interesting is that Natalie Portman was only 13 when her first movie came out. And it was a relative hit: Léon: The Professional. Portman played a twelve-year-old who becomes the ward of and apprentice to a professional assassin. There’s a father-daughter dynamic between the two of them that becomes genuine love. But the movie has come under fire for the way in which that “parent-child” bond manifests on screen. Especially because the film’s writer and director, Luc Besson, was in his thirties and married to a 16-year-old, Maïwen Le Besco. It’s hard to not see Leon and Portman’s character as an exaggerated, fictionalized version of Besson and his wife.
In May of 2023, Portman did an interview with The Hollywood Reporter. They said “How the public received that role in Léon: The Professional was complicated for you as a young woman.”
Portman: It’s a movie that’s still beloved, and people come up to me about it more than almost anything I’ve ever made, and it gave me my career, but it is definitely, when you watch it now, it definitely has some cringey, to say the least, aspects to it. So, yes, it’s complicated for me.
So there’s an interesting dynamic going on about not only how Hollywood preys upon real people, how the entire true crime genre does, but also about how Hollywood preys upon its own. Portman has complicated feelings about the beginning of her career just like Joe has complicated feelings about the beginning of his relationship with Gracie. And you know she’s not alone. There are many people in the movie industry who are taken advantage of in those early years. And the extent of that isn’t necessarily clear to them until much further in the future.
Earlier in May December, Elizabeth goes to the high school and answers questions from students. In talking about sex scenes, she says: Sometimes it’s really mechanical, like a choreographed dance, you know, where the only thing you can focus on is where you’re supposed to be, and when. And then sometimes there’s real chemistry between two people and you start feeling like it’s real. In a strange way. You’d never admit it to one another, but you’re wearing practically nothing and you’re rubbing up against each other…and sweating…and it’s for hours. And you start losing the line of like “am I pretending that I’m experiencing pleasure, or am I, am I pretending that I’m not experiencing pleasure?” And the whole crew, they’re almost always all men. You feel them watching. And you feel them, like, holding their breath. And they try and hide it when they swallow. You give into the rhythm, you know, every time. Tension never breaks.
This idea of “losing the line” also comes up in the letter Gracie wrote to Joe, the one that we watch Elizabeth perform.
My love. After you left tonight, I thought about the kind of life we could have if things were different. If I had been born later, or you long ago. But who knows what we would have been like then. Or where. What tragedies we’d have to face along the way. What bad luck. This is not what I ever would have wanted. But I’m so grateful that our paths led us to this road, no matter what the cost. I think about you all the time and the feeling I get when we look each other in the eyes. Do you feel that too? I know you don’t have much to compare it to, but, let me assure you, it is rare. I’ve gone my whole life without it. And now that I’ve found it, I can’t imagine going back and pretending. Sometimes I wish we’d never met, or that you didn’t get the job in the pet shop at least, because I know that our lives will be forever changed because of this, no matter how it all turns out. I know that my husband and my children, I know this will affect them too. My hope is that we can keep our secrets long enough until at least we’re in no danger from the law. Maybe by then, I’ll have enough time to end things cleanly, and make sure that the children know that I love them. And maybe by then we’ll have figured out what to say. When this first started, I didn’t know what to think. I knew that we’d crossed a line, and I felt in my heart that we would cross it again. But now I think I’ve lost track of where the line is. Who ever draws these lines? All I know is that I love you and you love me. And you gave me so much pleasure tonight. I hope I did the same for you. I’ll see you Saturday. Please burn this. You know what could happen to me if anyone ever found it. Your Gracie.
That brings us back to Joe’s attempt to talk to Gracie and telling her he was only 13. Which she rejected, saying he seduced her. But when you read that letter—you know who did the seducing. Even if Joe was okay with it at the time, it doesn’t mean he wasn’t taken advantage of.
So there’s a truly critical streak running through May December. Not just about predators. Not just about actors and the true crime genre. But about Hollywood itself.
Which brings us back to Elizabeth at the end saying it’s starting to feel more real. Is it? The dialogue is goofy. The acting doesn’t seem great. Elizabeth herself wasn’t presented as Meryl Streep or Natalie Portman. You start to wonder if the quality is actually going to be pretty low. And that’s something you can even say about May December itself. Though purposefully so.
For example, around 5 minutes into the film, one scene ends with Gracie going to the refrigerator. Suddenly dramatic music plays. The camera zooms. Then Gracie says, “I don’t think we have enough hot dogs.” Cut. It’s tonally pretty ridiculous. And might be jarring if you’re taking the movie as a 100% serious drama. But if you begin to view it as critical of the exact kind of true crime film it is—many of the cheesy moments shine with new meaning.
Ultimately, May December becomes two things. A sharp criticism of not just predators like Mary Kay but of the predatory nature of true crime and Hollywood. And an empowering message to survivors that you can look out for yourself and meet your needs. You can leave the relationship. Be the butterfly that flies from the cocoon. Your past doesn’t have to define your future.
The themes and meaning of May December
After May December’s Cannes premier, its author, Samy Burch, said one aspect of the film is “the vampiric nature of acting, or telling true stories of people that are alive, the true crime machine that’s come from the tabloid culture of the nineties.
This aspect of May December comes out in multiple ways.
First is how Elizabeth shows up in the lives of this family and stirs up so much drama. Not to say the family was perfectly happy before. But we know that Elizabeth’s presence sends a charge into the dynamics. The climax of which is her sleeping with Joe. For her, it’s nothing more than preparation for the role. For Joe, it’s a point of no return. Which is part of the fight that ends their time together. Elizabeth says “stories like these” to which Joe says “This isn’t a story! This is my f***ing life!” He storms out of the room. She picks her teeth then devours the letter he had given her (that Gracie wrote him back when they first transgressed).
Second is the actual film Elizabeth makes. We have no idea what the final product will look like. But what we see from the one scene leaves a lot to be desired. We return to Burch, who said this about the end: We can tell that it’s probably not going to win her an Oscar, but I think it’s funny and also so desperately sad that look in her eye, just trying to find the truth and “Where is it? Oh, it’s not here.”
So Burch, and by extension Haynes and Portman, saw that final scene as from something low quality. She even mentions how Haynes had left a note that the camera style should be “unmotivated handheld”. Burch: “Can you imagine really how many directors that would be a dagger at the heart, that phrase ‘unmotivated handheld.’”
That means all of Elizabeth’s work and research is poured into a movie that’s (probably) going to be schlocky the way so many true crime movies are. And that the idea it’s getting more “real” is an outrageous one because how can a two-hour film hope to capture all the complexity of what Gracie and Joe had experienced?
But that also brings us to May December itself. It’s based on Mary Kay Letourneau and Vili Fualaau. It changes names and the origin (pet store coworkers versus teacher and student) but is obvious about its inspiration. It plays on the made-for-TV quality of the true crime genre through “bad” dialogue and formal elements like oddly timed dramatic music or camera movements. In that way, it mimics the exact thing it’s smartly satirizing.
Why is the movie called May December?
A “May-December romance” is an actual phrase. A website called The Maudern has this to say about the origin. Dating back to the middle-ages, months in the spring were depicted as young women and the latter months as aging men. Its first literary appearance was in the 14th Century when Chaucer wrote of a young woman named May who married Mr. January, a greying gentleman—further personifying the idea of age in tandem with the seasons…It appeared again in the early 1800s in a song called An Old Man Would be Wooing…
The Chaucer story referenced is “The Merchant’s Tale”. And then “An Old Man Would Be Wooing!” has the lyrics: An Old Man would be wooing/A damsel, gay and young/But she, when he was suing, forever laugh’d and sung/”And Old Man, an Old Man will ne’er do for me/For May and December can never, can never agree/For May and December can never, can never agree
So the title grounds us not only in the dynamics of the relationship between Grace and Joe. But also can be viewed as a timeline. May to December. And that applies to seeing the “December” of Gracie and Joe’s relationship (only hearing about the May through backstory), the 20 years later of it all. But also Elizabeth’s project. We see her in the May of her preparation to play Gracie then, at the end, the December of her preparation.
Important motifs in May December
Graduation and butterflies
The idea of graduation is a background element that serves as subtext for where Joe’s at in his relationship with Gracie. His kids are simply graduating high school. But he is, in many ways, emotionally graduating to a point of leaving this relationship that had not only defined him but actually entrapped him.
That ties back to the butterflies. As they go from caterpillars to cocooned beings to butterflies that are no longer grounded. Joe is on the brink of finding his wings.
Questions & answers about May December
Did Georgie tell the truth? Did Gracie’s older brothers molest her?
We don’t really know. Generally speaking, it would track. The saying goes: “hurt people hurt people.” But we don’t know. Georgie does not come off as necessarily trustworthy. He’s mean to the members of his band. Nakedly ambitious in trying to get something from Elizabeth in exchange for that information. So why should we believe him when he’s using the information as leverage?
On the other hand, you can’t trust Gracie either. And given the way she manipulates Joe, it’s possible she also has some kind of grip on Georgie. So you can easily imagine her getting him to admit what he said in order to try to run damage control.
Regardless, it doesn’t really change what Gracie did to Joe. So it’s not a detail that affects the plot one way or another.
Where’s the movie take place?
Who was Joe texting?
A girl from his monarch butterfly Facebook group. You can imagine if he leaves Gracie the first thing he would do is go on a date with the butterfly woman.
How many kids did Joe and Gracie have?
Did Gracie shoot the fox?
Maybe. That scene is more to show that Gracie is a hunter. Also known as a predator. She’s not the fragile thing Joe thinks she is.
Who was Elizabeth having an affair with?
She had a husband. But it seems she was also sleeping with the director of the film she’s preparing for.
Now it’s your turn
Have more unanswered questions about May December? Are there themes or motifs we missed? Is there more to explain about the ending? Please post your questions and thoughts in the comments section! We’ll do our best to address every one of them. If we like what you have to say, you could become part of our movie guide!