I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
I have no children. I am not a mother. I am perfectly happy with this decision. So when I tell you that Tully moved me profoundly — to laughter and to tears — it has nothing to do with any firsthand experience in that arena, or with any regrets for not having had that experience. I tell you this because Tully isn’t about motherhood in the 21st century. It’s about womanhood in the 21st century.
Of course Tully is about motherhood. I don’t mean to diminish the incredibly important bravery of this movie in that aspect in any way. We only rarely see movies that deal with the difficult, complicated realities of motherhood — with the physical, emotional, and psychological impact that it has on women’s bodies and minds — and we have never seen a movie about motherhood like this one. An alien who looked at Earth’s pop culture as a way to determine what reproduction and parenthood is about for the female half of the human race would come to the conclusion that women glow when pregnant, recover from childbirth instantly, and are happily self-abnegating saints before their children and who never have doubts, frustrations, or second thoughts about motherhood. Hell, our culture has invented the myth of a “maternal instinct” in order to deny acknowledging that motherhood can be a bitch and that women are not automatically fulfilled by having and raising babies.
But Tully? When someone tells the hugely, uncomfortably pregnant Marlo (Charlize Theron: Gringo, The Fate of the Furious) that she’s glowing, it lands with all the sincerity of a sappy greeting card. This is a movie that rolls its eyes and barks out snark in the face of all the clichés about motherhood.
Many films in which characters are pregnant look exactly like what has been done to achieve this effect: an extremely thin actress has been fitted with a fake baby belly, which does not offer an accurate depiction of what happens to a woman’s body when she’s pregnant. (Her face gets fuller, for one. This is tougher to fake onscreen.) For Tully, Theron gained 50 pounds: she looks pregnant — the baby, Marlo’s third, is born shortly into the film — and then she looks like a woman who has just given birth and is too exhausted, mentally and physically, what with a newborn and two grade-schoolers to take care of, to do a damn thing about “getting into shape.” Even more realistically, Theron embodies, in a beautifully worn-out way, Marlo’s utter personal devastation. There’s an extraordinary sequence, just after the birth, a montage of night after night of sleep deprivation and of her entire existence, just about, given over to the insistent and never-ending demands of the squalling infant. (The baby’s bawling cuts right through you. We don’t think of a movie like Tully, a small domestic dramedy, as being one in which sound design stands out. But that newborn’s crying is as aurally violent as anything you’ll hear in a disaster flick or an action movie.) This is not a movie about the miracle of life and all that shit — the movie again rolls its eyes when someone coos that the new baby is “such a blessing.”
It’s after a while of this that Marlo reluctantly accepts the offer of her wealthy brother (Mark Duplass: The Lazarus Effect, Tammy): as a baby present, he’ll pay for a “night nanny,” who will come in and babysit overnight, so Marlo can sleep, with only brief wakeups for nursing. (Tully is also brutally realistic about breastfeeding. It can be a nasty, messy, painful endeavor for new mothers.) Enter Tully (Mackenzie Davis: Blade Runner 2049, The Martian). She’s young, eager, vastly knowledgeable about many things, and vastly empathetic of Marlo’s predicament.
And this is where Tully becomes all about the condition of women today, and an even more extraordinary cinematic depiction of womanhood… or at least of the big slice of womanhood that is overachieving, fiercely independent — which is true of Marlo even though she is married, to Drew (Ron Livingston: The 5th Wave, Vacation) — and proud of her own smarts and abilities. Screenwriter Diablo Cody’s (Ricki and the Flash, Jennifer’s Body) brilliantly wise and funny script recognizes how difficult it can be for women like Marlo to accept help… to even admit that she needs help. It’s tough for women like Marlo to even be kind to themselves. To ourselves. We know we’re supposed to be able to cope, to Have It All and Do It All, and it becomes a failure of modern womanhood to admit that we can’t. Not a failure of the world to admit that our ideas about womanhood are fucked up. A personal failure: we have failed to be the superwomen we’ve convinced ourselves we are supposed to be.
I can’t imagine that there are many women — mothers or not — who will see Tully and not be intensely moved by Marlo’s wonderment at moments of kindness, compassion, and help that come out of nowhere, that are unexpected. (And not just from Tully, either.) Of course they’re unexpected! So much of the work we do — particularly as mothers and homemakers — is completely invisible, and hence usually completely unrecognized. Tully’s sting with regard to that invisibility is a sharp one.
Director Jason Reitman (Men, Women & Children, Labor Day) — teaming up with Cody and Theron again after 2011’s Young Adult — is deeply, intimately sympathetic to Marlo in a way that I have never seen onscreen before when it comes to a female protagonist. But the film is also deeply critical and fully enraged at all the unseen burdens that women place upon ourselves, even as it suggests that we are merely getting a jump on those burdens getting loaded on us by the world. Instead of getting angry at how we are never good enough and perfect enough in the eyes of others, we place impossibly high standards and expectations on ourselves. Tully takes the term “self-care” and tosses it away as another one of those impossible expectations, and tells us it’s okay to accept help. Which is a very radical thing to say to trying-to-be superwomen.