Remember when there were three Amy Fisher TV movies in 1993, all airing within a week of each other on the major networks? It was a damn great time to be alive, what with the tabloids, “investigative” series like Hard copy, and delightfully cheap TV dramas, all reveling in the notorious misfortune of others, from Monica Lewinsky to the Menendez brothers. And in the midst of this frenzy over the unpleasant situations of complete strangers came the made-for-TV movie All-American Girl: The Mary Kay Letourneau Story.
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In 1997, Letourneau pleaded guilty to two counts of second-degree child rape; the teacher was awaiting sentencing when she gave birth to her first (but not last) child with former sixth form student Willie Fualaau. She violated the no-contact portion of her plea agreement and was sent back to prison in 1998, where she gave birth to a second child with Fualau. She was released in 2004, and less than a year after her no-contact order was lifted, Letourneau and Fualau married. Although legally separated at the time, Fualau was by Letourneau’s side when she died of cancer in 2020.
The inevitable TV movie made its way to USA Network in 2000, directed by Lloyd Kramer. (Kramer, it should be noted, went on to direct the 2012 biopic Liz and Dickin which Lindsay Lohan does one of the laziest Elizabeth Taylor impersonations ever caught.) Starring actress Penelope Ann Miller, All-American Girl: The Mary Kay Letourneau Story is one of the crappiest ripped-from-the-headlines TV movies America has ever nailed.
And with Todd Haynes’ similarly themed Oscar contender May December now on Netflix, All-American girl it’s worth seeing, as it’s exactly the type of camp that Haynes claims his film isn’t. All-American girlan artifact from another era’s ass, is the real deal: pure, identity-fueled excess.
All-American girl is Mary Kay Letourneau’s story turned up to eleven.
Credit: Screenshot / Tubi
All-American girl is harmless basic cable at its most basic: overlit cinematography, sultry Skinemax soundtrack, emotional Lifetime-style drama. A contemporary retelling of this story, centered on the statutory rape of a 13-year-old boy, will hopefully exercise some restraint, but All-American girl tread blissfully in slop without a second thought.
Play “Will you or won’t you?” angle, the film revels in teasing its “forbidden romance,” scrutinizing every brush of skin with bated breath in sickening detail. Indeed, by hiring an attractive 18-year-old actor (Omar Angiano) to play 13-year-old Fualaau, the film dives headfirst into the very quagmire that Haynes would mercilessly satirize two decades later May December. One of the funniest and darkest meta moments in Haynes’ film focuses on the predicament of casting that particular role in the film within the film—specifically, when headshots of 13-year-old actors are rejected by a glamorous actress (played by Natalie Portman) because they are not “sexy” enough to play the abused boy.
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The most shocking element of All-American girl is just how far he goes to take Letourneau’s side. The film is told from her point of view as she narrates the story to a court-appointed psychologist (played by a profoundly overqualified Mercedes Rewell), and it never takes long to guess her version of events. The depiction of Fualaau not only makes him visibly older, but also paints him as a predator. It’s like a strangely unnerving gender reversal of another famous ’90s figure, 17-year-old Amy Fisher, dubbed the “Lolita of Long Island” by the media (who somehow massively missed that Nabokov’s teenage girl wasn’t the villain in his novel). .
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In the beginning, Letourneau is portrayed as a caring Christian mother, tucking her children into bed while singing “Jesus Loves You” to them. Meanwhile, on the other side of town, Fualaau sets fire to an abandoned shack and then lies to the police about what happened. A later scene depicts Letourneau as an unwitting prey when we see the 13-year-old—and his sneering band of rascals—pull up in a convertible outside Letourneau’s house, where he makes a dizzying bet with them, declaring, “I’ll take that teacher.”
Yet, in the utterly shameless fashion of a ’90s tabloid sensation, and for all its awfulness, All-American girl is a fun watch if you can afford to vibe to the Velveeta it serves up. Because these characters never feel real for a moment, it’s easy to distance yourself from the real tragedy that caused them. The story-telling structure, with Ruhl’s psychiatrist enthusiastically prodding Letourneau to recount every sordid detail in a dimly lit interrogation room, is straight out of an episode of The Red Shoe Diaries – if The Red Shoe Diaries had a very special episode of hebephilia, ie. The script by Julie Hébert and the acting are, well, let’s be kind and say overloaded. If you can’t find the humor in a poorly lit scene of a wildly excited teenager yelling, “Recess is over!” at his confused teacher, then you’re probably not looking.
This scene is also a good litmus test for whether or not you’ll find the humor in it May Decemberwhich is designed to be wickedly funny and a brutal refutation of everything that All-American girl and its like means.
May December turns tabloid scum inside out.
Credit: Francois Duhamel / Courtesy of Netflix
May December has changed enough details from Letourneau’s story that it is not a strict retelling. That includes the characters’ names—Gracie (Julianne Moore) and Joe (Charles Melton) are our proxies here—as well as the initial context of their relationship (they met working at a pet store where she was his boss). But the team behind the film, including screenwriter Sammy Burch, have been quite open about where their inspiration came from.
May December uninterested in recovering from the scandal, instead focusing on an aspiring actress named Elizabeth (Natalie Portman) who dreams of making All-American girl from her own. She comes to Savannah to observe Gracie before casting her in a film that Elizabeth promises will be a more truthful and honest account of the affair. Haynes intends to have his upside-down pineapple cake and eat it here, too. Not only does it satirize the true-crime craze of the 1990s, but also the sleeker, seemingly more high-minded offerings of the last decade, such as American Crime Story, candiesand Love and Death.
Haynes does this by having each of his female leads represent a “then” and a “now” of him—even the film’s title refers to this bifurcation of time. Gracie is the ’90s edition, selling her baby and wedding photos to tabloid TV while shamelessly leaving a trail of destruction in her wake (including her first marriage and children). Like the tabloids that exploited their story and forgot it the moment some other humiliation appeared in their crosshairs, Gracie’s sociopathy is its own blank slate. Meanwhile, Elizabeth storms into town pretending to be above it all, but ends up being just as destructive and reckless by the end of the film. All in pursuit of a juicy role, a good “story”—a word that, when applied to his situation, sends Melton’s Joe on a merry-go-round.
Todd Haynes seeks honesty amid fiction.
Credit: Francois Duhamel / Courtesy of Netflix
As these femme fatales square off in a darkly comic melodrama, Jo appears as May Decembera pounding and broken heart. Gracie and Elizabeth are already obsessed with getting their looks right (hair, make-up, whispering), while Joe finally begins to see his tortured reality for what it is. Midway through the argument, he asks Gracie, “Why can’t we we’re talking about—if we’re really as in love as we say we are?” he points straight to the bitter truth about their relationship: how they’ve been forced to play perfection to make up for the original sin at their core.
With this devastating emotional line being cut May Decemberdowntown, Haynes might be right here claiming that his film is not camp. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t use the language of camp to deconstruct real objects from it. May December borrows technical cues from those tabloid retellings of the past – grainy, overlit cinematography; hypermelodramatic score – and puts them over and over again on the extremely banal. Family dinner, baking a cake and (in the film’s most viral moment) checking the hot dog fridge. And it is there, in the strife of ordinary life that takes on such towering fabulousness, that Haynes equalizes his meaning.
Because camp exists in the gap between intention and finished product, May December claims that only objects as ignorant as All-American girl or today’s faux-prestige vehicles can really be considered as such. And by making the gap between the banality of reality and the ways we reshape it seem so exaggerated, Haynes sets our baser car-crash propensities in stark, direct contrast to the existence of those people who are run over on the road.
In the end, May December circles around back to All-American girl.
The film within the film in May/December.
Credit: Screenshot / Netflix
For all Elizabeth’s efforts, the film she makes is not some grand cinema about a morally gray character. Instead, May December the final scene looks like ripped straight from All-American girl.
We witness with our jaws dropped to take after the stunt the re-enactment of Joe’s seduction by Elizabeth as Gracie in the pet store. The teenage actor cast opposite Elizabeth is clearly older and attractive; the whisper that Gracie already wielded as a weapon became even more exaggerated in Elizabeth’s amateur hands. And to top it off, Elizabeth as Gracie seduces while stroking a giant snake.
If this is what happens to a “true story” in the hands of Hollywood, we have every right to laugh at it, while the Josephs of the world are right to want to get off the wheel altogether. The only person who ends the film with any sort of real growth is Joe, who is last seen alone, watching his own teenagers graduate from a distance, having an emotional breakdown that seems to signal a deep (and pointedly unspoken) epiphany of some kind.
Our destructive cycles of voyeurism, epitomized by Gracie and Elizabeth’s instant diva encounter on the school football field that immediately follows, cannot reach him there. He seems to have found an escape, something all his own, as their melodramatic merry-go-round spins without him. Through Joe’s eyes we can see the game for what it is – prestige or trash, there is no room for truth in it.
How to watch: All-American Girl: The Mary Kay Letourneau Story is available to stream on Freevee and Tubi.