Director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody, the team who brought you Juno and Young Adult, have at it again, taking aim at motherhood.
Marlo (Charlize Theron) is struggling to keep up with her two young kids – sweet Sarah, who’s 8, has birthday parties and soccer practice to get to, and Jonah, who’s 4, has special needs and quirks that are inadequately addressed but in constant demand of attention. Marlo hasn’t quite pulled her hair out yet, not all of it, but baby #3 arrives quite quickly into the movie, and that’s when things fall apart. Sleep deprived and overwhelmed, she’s either moving through life like a zombie, or she’s dashing around like a crazy person. She feels like she’s failing her kids and her husband and her own personhood, and it’s only in her lowest low that she finally consents to allow a night nurse hired by her wealthy brother to help out. And as soon as Tully arrives, life is transformed. I have several things to say about this movie:
- I sat and watched it in the middle of the day, in a theatre with maybe 8 other people in it. There was a pair of old ladies behind me who of course could not shut their mouths for the life of them. One lady was always about 20 seconds behind, as if she was watching the movie on her very own special mental delay. The movie’s not exactly laugh out loud funny, but about 20 seconds after the rest of us had given a low chuckle, she would proclaim “Ha ha, that’s funny.” Except. Except this one joke that was heavily featured in the film’s promotion, in which the young night nurse Tully says that “You can’t fix the parts without treating the whole.” To which Marlo replies “No one’s treated my hole in a really long time.” And then the old lady behind me chimes in “Or mine!” – and you know what, Olga? (I bet her name was Olga) No one needs to hear about your hole, and I’m frankly finding it hard to imagine right about now that you’re capable of keeping any of them closed.
- Everyone’s talking about this “raw” and “honest” take on motherhood, and I think a lot of moms identified with the exhausted character they saw in the trailer. Motherhood is not always rosy. Asking for help might be sanity saving (though, hello, night nurses are for the privileged, and help isn’t always easy to come by, or easy to ask for). But mother-martyrdom has been done to death, so to me, the more interesting thing in this movie is how fatherhood is portrayed. Marlo’s husband hardly contributes to the parenting and she doesn’t even seem to resent him for it. He has a life outside the house, and he travels extensively, but even when he’s home he’s hardly helping. This is not my experience of 2018 dads, and I realize that breastfeeding will always keep things unequal, but Marlo’s husband is such a passive, uninvolved father the portrayal seemed dated. And if he really is this worthless, then Marlo needs to find her voice and demand better for herself and her family. But in fact, he gets away with it. The film never condemns him. That felt off to me.
- SPOILERS ahead, darlings. The truth is, for all the film’s “honesty” we find out that the magical night nurse really is too good to be true. Tully is an imaginary friend, perhaps even a younger Marlo. So while postpartum depression is hinted at if not named, this hallucination is in fact indicative of a psychotic break. Postpartum psychosis is rare but very serious, and people have mixed feelings about her lack of diagnosis and lack of treatment seen on screen. All new mothers struggle. All of them. Being responsible for the survival of a completely helpless newborn is all-consuming. And postnatal episodes of depression can hit 10-15% of new mothers, though many are still reluctant to admit to it. Does the film do a disservice in not naming this mental illness? Does the viewer learn anything? In the movie, Tully is eventually dismissed, like Mary Poppins, but that’s not how psychosis works, and we can’t help but be afraid for Marlo as she returns home to a life unchanged, an illness untreated, and a husband who’s still very much in the dark about everything.
- EVEN MORE SPOILERS. The movie lost its grip on me when it started making some weird choices on Marlo’s behalf. But once it’s revealed that night nurse Tully is actually a younger Marlo swooping in to save her flailing middle-aged self, those scenes start to make more sense. You kind of wish you could revisit them with your new knowledge in order to understand them for their truth and not their illusion. So this film will absolutely require a second viewing (though not in theatres, for fear of more old lady TMI). In a way, Marlo’s younger self is sort of her super hero, but they have things to learn from each other. Marlo envies Tully’s carefree life, her sexual escapades, her world of possibilities. But looking back, I’m struck by a line that didn’t mean as much at the time. Tully says “You’re convinced you’re this failure, but you actually made your biggest dream come true.” And if Tully really is a younger Marlo, then this isn’t empty reassurance but a reminder that motherhood was once her ambition.
Tully is a complex movie that needs and wants digesting. I believe it respects motherhood if not mental illness, and I have complicated feelings about that. But Charlize Theron is fearless as Marlo, a woman who has lost herself but thanks to Charlize always feels present nonetheless. Theron and Mackenzie Davis (Tully) have kinetic, intense chemistry and their scenes together add dimensionality to Hollywood’s concept not just of motherhood but of womanhood, femininity, and identity. Theron is self-assured; she uses her physicality in a way we haven’t seen from her before. She is daring and strong and I felt protective of her.
This movie was so quiet I didn’t even feel comfortable eating my snack, despite my stomach eating itself in desperation – it sort of mimicked the lethargy, the sleepwalking feel that Marlo stumbles around in. But whatever hell Marlo is experiencing, she’s taking care of her kids. Motherhood isn’t sacred in this movie, it’s not revered, but it’s honoured and esteemed and it’s clear they want to get it right.