A movie review from our resident film critic.
You've seen the trailer. It seemed to spread like wildfire (or coxsackie) through online mom communities from the moment of its release, and for good reason. It features a nearly unrecognizable Charlize Theron in the throes of a harrowing fourth trimester.
A montage of relatable scenes (set to a track with an ironic carnival feel) runs us through the endless carousel of comforting, feeding, diaper changes, pumping and sleeplessness many of us associate with those early newborn days. It's equal parts funny and relatable.
The film itself hits both of those chords, but also moves to a darker, stranger place, one not expressly hinted at in the trailer.
This is Tully: The latest Diablo Cody-penned, Jason Reitman-directed collaboration, their third to date. They joined forces again to create the rawest (and at select moments, the funniest) portrayal of the postpartum period that I've yet seen brought to screen. All three Cody/Reitman films clock in around a tight 90 minutes, and all three are character studies of a uniquely (well, by Hollywood standards) complex female lead.
Tully is not without its flaws, as the controversy currently surrounding the film and its portrayal of maternal mental health makes clear. But because I believe in my (hopeful, feminist, film-loving) heart that representation moves the conversation forward, I'm grateful for its release.
Theron plays (or, dissolves into the role of) Marlo, a woman on the verge. On the verge of having her third child, a pregnancy which by all accounts appears to be unplanned and at least a little unwelcome, and on the verge of mental, emotional and physical collapse. She enters scenes pregnant-belly-first, the weight of her world, and all she carries, made literal.
To put it lightly, she's overwhelmed—a feeling most moms can relate to, at least to some degree. She is a pregnant, working mother in her early 40's, with two children, one with undiagnosed special needs.
He is consistently referred to as "quirky," to the point where the script seems to be underlining the frustration of raising a child whose special needs are constantly reduced to euphemism. He kicks Marlo's seat and yells incessantly as they drive to his private school, a place that responds to the quandary of how to best support him with a shrug.
Marlo's husband (portrayed evenly, and toward the end, touchingly, by Ron Livingston) is a loving father, though he remains nearly oblivious to Marlo's struggle. She's touched out, and he's tuned out.
At times throughout this first act, notably in an early scene in a coffee shop, Marlo seems to be almost sleepwalking through her daily life. She has a chance run-in with a woman who barely recognizes this very pregnant, very tired, suburban-dwelling iteration of her old friend Marlo, shedding light on her free-spirit past (plus a drop of foreshadowing for a later scene).
The old friend lets Marlo know she's still living at "the loft" in Bushwick—a particularly hip sector of Brooklyn—before speeding off on her motorbike. As Marlo watches her pull out on that vehicular symbol of freedom, you can practically hear her inner monologue asking, "How exactly did I get here?"
Marlo's cartoonishly rich-and-hip brother (his dog is named Prosecco and his elementary-aged daughter plans to perform "pilates" for her school talent show) offers to fund a night nurse for Marlo as a baby gift, expressing concern as he alludes to her past struggle with postpartum depression.
He later confides he "just wants his sister back," saying that he feels like her flame has been snuffed out. This analogy lands perfectly—even from a formal perspective, the beginning of the film feels like we meet Marlo in this dimmed place. Her home is dark, dull and a little stained-feeling, the screen taking on a dim and yellowed tone, echoed in her wardrobe—all physical manifestations of the world, outlook and season of life she currently inhabits.
Marlo initially balks at the idea of a night nanny, put off by the concept of trusting her newborn's life (and precious early bonding days) to a stranger. Then, a particularly upsetting episode at her son's school leaves her screaming with frustration in the school parking lot. (I found this scene to be particularly effective, as her minivan seems to represent the trappings of her #momlife, and the world-closing-in feeling that is enveloping her). She calls the night nanny.
And just like that, we meet Tully, the 26-year-old Manic Pixie Dream Nanny, who pokes her head through the doorframe to change the course of the film. Though their initial encounter and baby hand-off is appropriately awkward, I felt actual bodily relief when Tully looked earnestly at Marlo and said the simple words, "I'm here to take care of you."
Marlo doesn't know how to react, admitting she's not used to being cared for, and pointing out that she hired a nanny to care for the baby, not the mama. Tully counters that at this stage in the postpartum game, mama and baby are more like parts of the same whole: Emotionally, but also on a biological level—down to the very molecules still present in Marlo's body.
Tully is prone to these kind of offhand, philosophical-with-a-touch-of-science musings, in response to a straightforward question posed by Marlo. This recurrent bit underscores the split between the two vastly different worlds they inhabit.
After one particularly funny exchange, Marlo shakes her head, telling Tully she's like a "book of facts for an unpopular fourth grader." I see this split between worlds echoed in a recurrent dream Marlo has—a deep, cloudy, underwater shot shows either a woman struggling, trying to kick her way to the surface, or a mermaid, gracefully cutting through the deep. To me, the mermaid seems like Marlo's younger, freer, aspirational self, and a lot like Tully, swimming through life. (The drowning is, well, where we met Marlo a few pages back).
Tully has that kind of warm, immediately-intimate nature that always makes me a little wary of a new acquaintance. She slides right into the night shift of Marlo's life, snuggling the baby and sending Marlo off to bed. She cleans the house and brings the baby to Marlo's room *only* when she needs to nurse, waiting patiently (and a little eerily) in the dark of the room until the baby is done. Buoyed by this increase in sleep and support, the fog on Marlo's life begins to lift.
Marlo's regard for Tully moves from head-tilting suspicion, to trust, to a real affection. As the women bond, we see the light begin to turn back on within Marlo, she starts to laugh again, and starts to look at her new baby and smile. She also starts to stay up later, spending personal time with the nanny as she reconnects with the parts of herself that weren't visible at the start of the film, buried as they were under exhaustion, stress and likely PPD.
Things take a darker turn when the lines become increasingly blurred between the two women, as things are taken to a far more intimate/personal level. One night, the pair spontaneously head out for a night out in Marlo's old Brooklyn stomping grounds, where Marlo hits peak nostalgia for the way things once were, before having to call it a night due to her aching, unemptied breasts. (S/O to Tully for being a real one, and helping Marlo cope with this issue in the bathroom of a grimy dive).
The night also signals the end for the pair, as Tully lets Marlo know it's now time for her to leave, explaining she was nearly a stopgap to help Marlo get through those rough early days. Marlo doesn't want to hear it, but she doesn't have a choice. Their wild night out comes to a literal crashing halt when they get in a car accident on the drive home, the car plunging deep into a river, pulling the visual of Marlo's earlier dreams through to nightmarish reality.
I won't explicitly spoil the film's twist and resolution in this little ol' write-up, though the curious can very easily access that info with a click. I will admit that I found the ending to be less-than-wholly-satisfying from a narrative POV, though I did like the very final sequence of the film, particularly the tender moments between Marlo and her son, and an understated exchange between Marlo and her husband. Both offer slivers of hope and seem to hint at the start of a new season for the family.
Though the film may ultimately fall a little short of it's early promise, I enjoyed it for a few reasons. For one: Tully made me reflect on the transition I went through after having my first baby, and the inevitable reckoning with my past, "pre-baby" self, as well as the need to let that actual past go. Marlo's relationship with Tully truly brings this reckoning to life—as she learns to re-embrace a representation of her younger self, and eventually, to let that younger self go and move on, in a real way.
After becoming a mom myself, it took me a while to navigate back to feeling wholly like "me." When I finally reconnected with that essential part of myself, it was like the kernel of my sense of self was still the same, but completely transformed.
The transformation (or, transformations) a woman will experience through on her journey as a mother are not readily addressed in our culture or in conventional media, and I am excited to see a film with broad release deal with the very realness of this reckoning.
Diablo Cody herself isa mother of three, and she wrote this script right after having her third baby. In a promo soundbite put out by Focus Features, she described why creating in that context was a unique artistic experience: "I don't think I've ever written anything in that super-vulnerable postpartum state before, and I'm glad I did...I was able to put those kind of raw feelings of fear and exhaustion into the script."
The maternal mental health community has been actively frustrated and angered by the film's ending, and what they consider an irresponsible depiction of perinatal mood disorders. I respect and understand these concerns, and think they're an important part of the conversation.
In the wake of this controversy, the New York Times asked Cody if she'd consulted a maternal mental illness expert before writing the script. She said she "absolutely did not," a decision she stands by. She explained that she wrote from her own experience, and her own research, offering that one movie cannot possibly tell everyone's story, positing, "So why can't we have 10 more movies?"
This spirit, right here, is why I'm glad this film was made, and why I'm glad it's being so talked about. As a mom, a doula and an all-around fan of women, I think the topic of maternal care—including both mental and physical health—needs all the attention it can get. The fact that this story was brought to screen, and that its encouraging such feverish debates, is to me, a positive. The fact that Cody wrote such a uniquely feminine piece, while in such a uniquely feminine state of body and mind, feels progressive.
Will this film singlehandedly flip the script on our culture's perception of the mental load of motherhood, postpartum depression, and provide concrete next steps for a massive increase of maternal support? No. It's just an idiosyncratic story. Like motherhood, it's messy and imperfect, a complicated blend of comedy and tragedy, love and pain.
But, the film is igniting a conversation. It's forward motion for how Hollywood portrays and considers the complexities of motherhood. It's unique insight into how becoming a mother can affect and transform a woman's sense of identity. I think that's a positive baby step.