When the media adaptation of a real-life crime scenario, especially sexual abuse, is in question, the perspective and predicament of the victim deserve most of the attention, as there is a risk of misinterpretation if the makers are not sincere enough. Todd Haynes, director of May December, a drama inspired by the scandalous ‘relationship’ between Mary Kay Letourneau, a middle-aged teacher who seduced her 6th grade student, Vili Fualaau, understood the assignment well. Accordingly, in the movie, greater importance was given to the character of Joe Yoo—the movie’s version of Vili Fualaau’s character—which made viewers able to learn how traumatic and even subliminal the impact of sexual abuse can be.
As the events of the movie take place two decades after the scandalous incident, at a time when Joe has raised a family with Gracie (Mary Kay’s character in the movie), an exploration of Joe’s psyche—and, in essence, Vili’s as well—is conducted by observing his interaction with people close to him. There are some significant changes in certain aspects of Joe’s character, with details added in the form of symbolism, which we will discuss to discern how it actually helps viewers empathize with his predicament as a victim.
How Does Joe Yoo’s Character Compare to Vili Fualaau?
Just like Mary Kay’s background went through some notable changes in the movie version of her character, Gracie, similarly, Joe Yoo’s past differed from the real-life victim Vili Fualaau as well. Alteration in ethnicity is the most obvious one, as Vili’s Samoan immigrant background was substituted with half Korean Yoo family, although it doesn’t seem that impacted the characterization that much. In the movie, Joe’s mother’s role is subsided, and a brief scene with his father is shown, who seems to be unwilling to discuss his son’s ‘family life’, clearly uncomfortable with the reality of the situation and having a passive role overall. In reality, Vili was raised by his mother, Soona Vili, and had to cope with the absence of a father figure as his father, Luaiva Fualaau, was imprisoned. Soona had to handle multiple odd jobs to make ends meet, and young Vili’s impoverished background was part of the reason Sherwood Elementary teacher Mary took notice of him in the first place, as she was generally kind and helpful towards students who had a rough childhood.
Joe’s mother playing no active role during the most turbulent situation in his life is ironic because, in real life, Soona trusted Mary Kay with her son a lot, which is why her seduction of Vili came as a shock of betrayal to her. While Mary was imprisoned, Soona took care of her and Vili’s children as well, despite her obvious contempt for Mary’s actions.
Another major issue that factored in a significant way in the scandal was the fact that Vili was a victim who had no idea that he was getting abused. This was partly due to his not being emotionally mature, being barely an adolescent at that period of time. But, primarily due to the existing patriarchal system, it has injected a troublesome notion regarding male consent, which trivializes the repercussions of sexual assault when male victims are in question. As a result, Vili was easily convinced by and even corroborated Mary’s concocted love story angle, while in reality he was being groomed by her. Vili went on defending their ‘relationship’ in public, and he refused to see things clearly up until his separation from Mary Letourneau.
The most severe impact their relationship had on Vili was psychological, as his emotional maturity was stunted up to a certain point. Understandably so, as during his formative years, when kids of his age were probably busy discussing Saturday morning cartoons, he had already become a father of two. His adolescence was snatched away from him, and he was burdened with a responsibility way beyond his age or understanding. The resultant difficulty in coping with grown-up troubles is vividly shown in the movie through the characterization of Joe. He has very little say regarding control of his own life. He reiterates whatever Mary says without questioning her about the nature of their relationship. To his kids, he is more like an elder brother or friend than a fatherly presence, and with them being the closest same-age companions, Joe gets bewildered to think about how he will deal with their absence once they start college life. In a poignant sequence, his relationship with his children is shown. A day earlier, at the kid’s graduation ceremony, he sits along with his son, Charlie, on the rooftop, perhaps with the intention of sharing some fatherly advice, but is unable to come up with anything. Joe strikes up a conversation, and seeing Charlie smoking up a blunt, he is enticed to try it out as well, for the first time in his life. The recognition of how much he has missed from his life due to the perversion of someone else is truly tragic.
Joe has a hobby of raising butterflies, which is symbolical to his own desire to escape from this cloistered world, where he doesn’t feel like belonging. He chats with a friend on social media from a common hobby group, and even though he is willing to meet her, he is reminded of his marriage at once. More than the fact whether his relationship with Gracie is based on love, he is forced to believe that it is. Elizabeth’s remarks puts a question mark on Joe’s mind regarding the legitimacy of his relationship with Gracie, but when he confronts her about it, like clockwork Gracie manipulates him into thinking that he was the seducer, the one in charge – forever trapping him in a false sense of liability. As the movie ends, Elizabeth and Gracie are content with the lies, but we realize that Joe is oscillating in the space between lie and truth. He can find a life of his own and move on, but at the same time he is too fond of his kids as well – and his future position in the family is hinted at in the way he tearfully celebrates his kids’ graduation ceremony away from the stands, away from Gracie. Fortunately, in real life, Vili was able to break the abusive shackle by getting a separation from Mary Letourneau, he had recognized the wrongful way he was treated, but at the same time he acknowledged a belated Mary as a powerful presence in his life as well. After a certain point of time, it is impossible to completely let go, but at least there is closure in the fact that life presents us with the choice to eventually leave the past behind.