Tully is a Candid and Humanizing Depiction of Motherhood

I’ve given a lot of thought to whether or not I want to have kids someday. The key word being “someday.” So much of that experience interests me, but I find it hard to imagine a version of myself capable of handling it. I’m 24 years old. I have two wonderful, low maintenance cats. My partner and I have the burning desire to adopt a labradoodle or a Great Dane or a German Shepherd. We fight that urge because it would simply be too much to handle at this time in our young lives. The very concept that I will one day be ready, willing, and able to claim responsibility for a new human life is completely incomprehensible to me. Tully, written by Diablo Cody, directed by Jason Reitman, is about a mother having her third child. I entered the theater unsure I would have any access point into this story. I struggle to understand the mindset of an adult who feels ready to consider having a single child… I certainly cannot understand the mindset of going around that block for a third time. But while Cody and Reitman have carefully crafted a personal, brutally candid portrait of parenthood, it turns out they aren’t telling a story about a woman’s relationship with her children, but rather about her relationship with herself.

Tully follows Marlo (Charlize Theron), the aforementioned mother, who reluctantly accepts her wealthy brother’s gift: a night nanny. The night nanny’s, as the title suggests, is to tale over care of the newborn so Marlo can get a good night’s sleep. Her name is Tully (Mackenzie Davis), and she disrupts the first act’s nightmarish depiction of motherhood with charming 20-something wisdom. “I’m here to take care of you,” she says to Marlo, who corrects her: she’s here to take care of the baby. Tully rejects the correction.

With extra sleep and assistance Marlo’s quality of life skyrockets. In the moments before bed, and through the bleary-eyed moments when Tully wakes Marlo to breastfeed, a friendship forms. Davis and Theron have effortless chemistry. It’s telling that we don’t learn the baby’s name until after Tully shows up. The baby isn’t a character. It’s not about the baby, it’s about Marlo. She has a hard time taking care of this new creature in her life, because she doesn’t have the opportunity or ability to take care of herself. Tully gives her this opportunity, and even does some of the work for her.

Reitman and co have crafted an aesthetic and emotional beauty of a film. It’s perfectly paced, cleverly edited. This film has my favorite uses of montage I’ve seen in a long time. The mind numbingness of routine, the exhaustingly consistent disruption of that routine. I have a kind of fascination with banality. The concept doesn’t translate well to film. A visual, time-based medium does not lend itself well to describing the banal, because it often becomes boring for the audience. Making banality emotionally resonant is the sign of a master. Reitman is a master. The first act’s mundane events (dropping the kids off at school, going to a relative’s house for dinner) fosters a legitimate anxiety, just as Tully’s arrival brings surene relief.

I loved this film. But I have one major issue with it. I cannot fathom a way to write about this issue without spoiling the movie in a major way. So, you’ve been warned. Spoilers ahead…

 

The film has been discussed a lot by maternal mental health advocates and those far more knowledgeable than I about postpartum depression and postpartum psychosis. The common arguments I’ve read are that Tully irresponsibly equates postpartum psychosis with the normal challenges of motherhood, and that there’s no depiction of Marlo treating her psychosis, but rather moving past her mental illness with no professional help. What bothered me, not just from a mental health advocacy perspective (on which I have zero professional expertise) but from a narrative perspective, is that the film implies Marlo’s psychosis genuinely improved her life. At the end of the film we learn that she was sleep deprived. She was staying up all night to clean the house, bake cupcakes, sex her husband, and care for her newborn. Looking back at the film with knowledge of this “twist” it retroactively becomes strange that she also became happier, more understanding and patient, a “better” mom in her own view. She learns and grows from her experiences with Tully. The first time around this reads as a genuine, heartfelt friendship. Tully seems a little too good to be true, a kind of of platonic manic pixie dream girl, which then makes sense when we learn she is Marlo’s idealized younger, wiser, happier self. But this communicates that dangerous, destructive psychosis yields personal growth. In short, Tully romanticizes mental illness, and simultaneously undercuts its own story.

Perhaps it would work if the film committed to Marlo’s husband Drew’s (Ron Livingston) absent-fatherhood and husbandhood. It would be one thing if he was totally unaware of what was going on with his wife. But while he doesn’t share equally in the labor of parenting, he does acknowledge that Marlo is doing great. He notices that she’s happier and better rested, but that doesn’t make sense unless either A) postpartum psychosis imbues you with so much manic energy that you show no signs of exhaustion or B) Drew is a far more clueless character than anything in the film indicates.

Either way, the result is that all of the beautifully written and performed growth and development that takes place in the film is undermined. It forces you to question how legitimate that growth is. It retroactively takes something that was wholesome and makes it sinister. I am torn about my opinion of this film. The experience of watching it was wonderful. It’s so perfectly crafted, and so emotionally resonant. I so dearly connect to Marlo. Her motherhood is depicted not as some spiritual vocation, but as a choice she’s made. When she struggles, and makes mistakes, the film doesn’t judge her, and it doesn’t make her redeem herself, it doesn’t even make her justify herself. Tully is honest about the fact that being a parent is challenging and impossible and terrifying. As a 24 year old, who feels that parenthood is so galactically far from my experience, Tully reminded me that being a parent is just being a human. It’s a shame that this one little, tiny, massive thing forces me to problematize the whole film.

I give Tully 7.5 dropped cell phones out of 10 loud toilet flushes.

 

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2 thoughts on “Tully is a Candid and Humanizing Depiction of Motherhood

  1. I don’t think the film is trying to say that her life was actually improved by her psychosis. In real life, occasionally we do find a temporary burst of will (or mania) that gets us through a short period of time. Sometimes we feel like we just have to rise to the occasion, and sometimes we do rise, and sometimes we even fool ourselves into thinking we are happy with ourselves when we achieve the impossible. The real problem is that life in this form is not sustainable and a crash will come (sometimes literally and sometimes symbolically.) Marlo needed to remember all the lessons she had forgotten, and needed to find herself — or at least a new version of herself — amid motherhood and parenthood.

    As someone who has lived through three young children, including a five week pre-mature infant, I remember all-too-well the mind-numbing routine, and the utter exhaustion. And our our case, both parents took turns feeding the babies and it still felt overwhelming and impossible. And I remember how quickly I felt lost and alone and felt like maybe we had made a big mistake in leaving our youth behind all too quickly.

    Just as the baby isn’t a character, I don’t think the the husband is a character either. Ron Livingston’s Drew may or not be a clueless and absent father. We have no way of knowing because we are completely within Marlo’s frame of mind and vision. We see only what she sees.

    The film goes out of it’s way not to label medical conditions or mental health, and I certainly can’t speak to treating mental health. But as a father and husband, I can say that sometimes we have to spiral a little bit before we wake up and realize something has to change. We need to talk to our partner, get some help, see a therapist, take more naps, change a job, get more exercise, or yes — listen to our inner child, our younger and wiser and idealistic self.

    I don’t think every story that touches on depression or mental illness requires full on therapy and treatment. Having lived life, and raised a family, sometimes time just takes time. Sometimes things do work out. And sometimes we get woken up with a jolt, having just crashed the car.

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