Tully November 5, 2018
1 Hr., 35 Mins.
ully (2018), the fourth collaboration between the director Jason Reitman and the writer Diablo Cody, acts as an end to an unofficial trilogy of motherhood. The first “chapter,” 2007’s zeitgeisty Juno, was, of course, about a teenager (Ellen Page) who unwittingly got knocked up by a friend (Michael Cera), and her ensuing relationships with the married couple (played by Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman)
intending to adopt her unborn child.
The second was Young Adult (2011), a movie about a callous, erstwhile mean girl named Mavis (Charlize Theron) who came back to her hometown for a class reunion. On the surface, it did not appear to be a movie about motherhood. It was a midlife-crisis-driven feature, more honest than American Beauty (1999), more hopeless than Lost in Translation (2003). But when we learned that the central heroine was impregnated by her boyfriend in high school, but had a miscarriage after three months, the movie started to resemble an alternate reality. We wondered: What would have happened if Mavis didn’t move on to become a sardonic, perennial bachelorette but had, instead, married her high-school sweetheart? What if she had had the baby?
Unlike Juno and Young Adult, Tully takes place in the thick of motherhood. It stars Theron, enervated, depressed, and 50 pounds heavier, as Marlo, a woman of about 40. Marlo has been married to Drew (Ron Livingston), an unexceptional man whom she only seems to kind of like, for years. She has two kids: a precocious little girl named Sarah (Lia Frankland), and a restless spirit named Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica), who has an unspecified developmental disorder.
Marlo is several months into her third pregnancy as the film opens. Though not unwelcomed, it was unplanned. While she maintains outward niceties, Marlo is anxious. There are financial worries, to begin with — she’s a resource manager at a protein-bar company; Drew has an abstract, Chandler Bing-like office job — but she is also already so excruciatingly exhausted in part due to her maternal duties. It is additionally suggested that her previous pregnancies came with postpartum depression.
When Marlo does give birth — to a girl she and Drew name Mia — depletion is instantaneous. Although restless nights and relentless fatigue are commonplace after one has a baby, Marlo feels particularly overburdened. She doesn’t really have any friends to talk to. At close call is her wealthy, prickish brother Craig (Mark Duplass) and his unnervingly perfect wife, Elyse (Elaine Tan), but neither seems especially interested in hearing about how she’s feeling. She does not have any substantial hobbies or pastimes to help her unwind. Jonah is having a difficult time in school, too: his principal, to Marlo’s annoyance, has a habit of calling him “quirky” during furrowed-brow-outlined one-on-one meetings. (She clearly means “unfit for this institution.”) Marlo is always inhaling. She is, perhaps in a Whitney Houston sort of way, waiting to exhale.
One night, while having dinner with Craig, the latter suggests Marlo get a night nurse. The idea seems absurd: in no way does Marlo want a stranger in her home with her newborn. The more Craig discusses the role, though, the more appealing employment starts looking. Marlo will, for the most part, get to sleep soundly throughout the night, only woken up if breast milk is needed. Craig will pay. Marlo will think about it.
Before a firm decision is made, soon appears a 26-year-old woman named Tully (Mackenzie Davis). “I’m here to take care of you,” she says, after suddenly arriving at Marlo’s doorstep. That’s funny: Wasn’t this woman supposed to be taking care of the baby? That’s part of it, sure. “But you pretty much are the baby,” Tully casually says.
Ensuing evenings are hardly restful in the ways Marlo had anticipated. Not because Tully is doing a bad job — Mia is thriving — but because Tully, who is inquisitive and a good listener, turns out to be a great friend. Marlo feels like Tully is the first person in a long time — maybe ever — to really listen to what she’s saying. As the weeks pass, things begin improving. Marlo is better rested; she’s happier. She has time to go jogging outdoors.
We’re not sure how much we trust Tully: We know next-to-nothing about her. She never introduces herself to Drew, until Marlo talks about her sexual frustrations and Tully, undeniably unethically, addresses the problem firsthand, if you know what I mean. She says she’s in “several” relationships. There was never any point where Marlo totally agreed to have a night nurse; Tully’s credentials are never explicitly relayed. No matter: Marlo hasn’t felt this relieved in forever.
Tully is at its best when these women are simply interacting. Late in the movie, when Tully and Marlo go downtown to drink and dance, they have a particularly memorable exchange in a bar. Tully presents our protagonist with a hypothetical. Let’s say you have a ship. If you annually replace the plank, does it continue to be the same ship, or does it become something new? Without blinking, Marlo says it becomes new. What about humans, then?, Tully ponders. Bodies change every day; cells are replaced like clockwork. Are we not the same person we were, both literally and figuratively, when we were born, for instance? “I guess I’m just not me without the original parts,” Marlo drily replies.
Until the movie eventually arrives at an unsatisfying finale, which creakily admixes mental illness and fantasy, Tully is a curious surveying of a single experience of motherhood and all the irritations and crises that come with it. The aforementioned exchange most astutely parallels what we imagine Marlo is thinking and feeling all the time: that even though she is foundationally the same person she’s always been, the more her life is altered by her wifely and maternal duties, the less she’s able to see herself.
Troubling to her, too, is a gnawing truth that things might not be much better even if, say, she didn’t get married, and if she didn’t have children. She doesn’t have any special skills, and never had a “dream.” It is intimated that in Marlo’s younger years, she was in a relationship with a woman, but abandoned it after meeting Drew. Who would she have become if her current marriage never came to fruition?
Tully, braced by Theron's and Davis’ frank performances and Cody’s and Reitman’s deeply empathetic treatment of the material, finely captures the motherly malaise. It is through the film’s attention to detail, though, that the movie, in spite of the previously mentioned conclusive shortcomings, starts looking universal. Yes, Tully is predominantly a movie about motherhood’s stultifications. But it is also a testament to the moments in your life where you press pause, sit down, and think: how did I get here? B+