Joe Yoo In ‘May December,’ Explained: Is He Based On Real-Life Vili Fualaau?


Director Todd Haynes very subtly shows us the nitty-gritty of the relationship between Grace and Joe in May December, and through it, we get to know if it was actually a love story as so many in society believed it to be or if it was merely a case of a juvenile groomed by a woman almost twice his age. Obviously, it was a huge scandal when people got to know that Mary Kay and Vili were caught in the act, and people at that point in time did consider the former to be a pedophile who preyed upon her student and spoiled his entire life. But slowly, as time passed, Mary Kay started getting some validation, and people thought that it was probably a strange love story where both parties had actually fallen for each other, as they claimed. Consent is a very tricky word, and after watching May December, we came to the conclusion that even though Vili might have believed that nobody forced him, the reality was much more complex than that. So let’s try to decipher through the article if the real-life Joe, i.e., Vili Fualaau, was the victim or not, and how aware Mary Kay was of the repercussions her actions could potentially have.

Was the scandal a consensual act?

From her lawyer to the law enforcement authorities, Mary Kay told everyone that she had not preyed upon her 13-year-old student, but it was a consensual act, and moreover, it was the latter who had made moves to let her know how he felt about her. When Mary’s lawyer met her for the first time, she told him that she was in love with Vili. In May December, we saw how, while talking to Elizabeth, Gracie’s lawyer said that he couldn’t understand if she was just trying to cover up her act or if she was actually as delusional as she seemed to be. Vili was entering puberty, and he accepted having a crush on his teacher. Mary Kay got intimate with him, and she made him believe that it was an act of love. Vili’s mother had blind faith in Mary Kay, and she was shattered when she got to know that she had abused her kid. Vili was mature for his age, and people said that he was an old soul, but still, he was too young to understand what he was doing, and it was a fact that he was groomed by Mary Kay to believe that their feelings were pure. We can’t even imagine the kind of impact it would have had on Vili’s subconscious mind. Vili was not at an age where he understood consent or was capable of giving it. Though he looked perfectly fine on the outside, the experts believed that the incident had an adverse impact on his nervous system and potentially made him prone to mental disorders later in his life.

Why did Vili decide to marry Mary Kay?

Mary Kay’s letters did the trick for her, and her words made sure that she brainwashed Vili even when she was not physically present in front of him and was in prison. Mary was grooming him to become the kind of man she always wanted to be with. Mary constantly wrote to Vili from prison, and soon, the boy accepted the fact that he was in love with his teacher and that there was nothing unnatural in what happened between them. The grooming was a slow process, and probably Mary was aware of how she was snatching away his freedom without him knowing about it. Vili walked towards his own doom, and he believed that it was a path chosen by him. He even filed a petition in a court of law to quash the order that prohibited Mary from contacting him. Vili believed that he was acting of his own free will, but he was merely a puppet whose strings were being pulled by Mary.

Mary had reached a point where Vili had become a need for her, and she was just not ready to let go of him, even if it meant keeping him caged all his life. Vili decided to get married to Mary, and this decision changed a lot of perceptions in society. We are not denying that Vili wouldn’t have had any happy moments with Mary, but the fact was that he was never allowed to explore what the concept of love meant for himself. Though it could be said here that she had not chained him, and he was free to do what he wanted, the reality was that going against Mary and doing something that upset her was something that his brain just couldn’t comprehend. It was something like drawing a chalk line in front of an ant to make it believe that it was a barrier that couldn’t be crossed. In Vili’s case, it was an imaginary barrier that he himself did not see, which was why he felt he was naturally drawn towards Mary, and she was the one true love of his life.

Why did Vili and Mary get divorced?

During the end of May December, we saw how being with Elizabeth made Joe realize he was never given the option to discover his likes and dislikes, and a blinder was put in front of his eyes where he could only see what Gracie wanted him to. In the film, he tried to talk to Gracie about it, but she played the victim and made him feel really bad for thinking something like that. As usual, Joe had to leave the topic as he didn’t want to upset his partner.

Probably in real life, too, something similar would have happened, which led Vili to make the decision to file for divorce. Mary passed away a year after they got divorced, as she was suffering from cancer. Vili said that though his relationship ended, he was distraught when he heard the news of Mary succumbing to her illness. We wished that Vili didn’t have to go through all that he did and that he also had the opportunity to lead a normal life like others. We hope he finds happiness in his life and spends the rest of it making his own choices and decisions.

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Sushrut Gopesh
Sushrut Gopesh
I came to Mumbai to bring characters to life. I like to dwell in the cinematic world and ponder over philosophical thoughts. I believe in the kind of cinema that not necessarily makes you laugh or cry but moves something inside you.

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