While I was watching Tully I was struck by a peculiar realization. I had no idea what type of movie I was watching. A smirk crept onto my face as I sat in the dark happily watching a movie I couldn’t peg as it navigated a myriad of ideas without ever losing sight of itself.
Motherhood is often viewed as a winding path to sainthood, both literally and metaphorically. What is left out of most of our musings about motherhood, indeed parenting as a whole, is the emotional and physical toll it extracts. Mothers, in particular, are assumed by society to be superwomen able to multitask on a single hour of sleep and have dinner ready and waiting by the end of the day.
True, this all seems like relics of a bygone era but modern mothers have just as high expectations than the mothers before them, if not more so. Tully has the audacity to explore not just the minutiae of motherhood but a woman’s midlife crisis. The hardest part of being an adult is coming to terms with being an adult.
Marlo (Charlize Theron) and Drew (Ron Livingston) are expecting their third child. As the movie starts Reitman and Cody drop us into Marlo’s routine head first. Before the title card even comes up they have all but suffocated us by immersing us in Marlo’s day to day routine. The demands of motherhood are taxing because the demands of motherhood never stop.
Early on we are shown Marlo spilling a bag of breast milk on the counter. I sympathized with her for the mess she would have to clean, but I have heard stories of women gasping in horror at this moment. As Tully continues I began to understand why the women gasped. Tully is unflinching in how it beats the audience down to Marlo’s level of exhaustion.
If being pregnant wasn’t enough, Marlo’s son Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica) is clearly on the spectrum. Or as the principal at his school tells her, “He’s quirky.” Jonah on his own would be a handful, but she also has Sarah (Lia Frankland) a bright girl who’s outgoing demeanor is slowly becoming introverted because of self-doubt.
Drew is a good father and he works hard but there’s only so much he can do. Marlo stays home and Drew goes to work. He helps the kids with the homework but most everything else is left to Marlo. Marlo’s brother, Craig (Mark Duplass) surprises her with a birthday gift, a night nanny. Her brother sees how tired she is. Craig bemoans how helpless he feels as he looks at his once lively sister. He wants to help but Marlo just doesn’t feel comfortable letting a stranger in her house.
Then the baby comes. Before long it all becomes too much and Marlo caves and calls the number. Tully (Mackenzie Davis) arrives like something out of a fairy tale. With her soothing voice and self-possessed strut, she exudes the aura of a savior sent to rescue Marlo.
Diablo Cody’s script allows us glimpses at a different Marlo under the exterior. She has a caustic wit and delights in cutting through polite conversation to get at the heart of the matter. When the principal at Jonah’s school suggests another school would be better, Marlo knows what she’s being told. “Say what you mean!” Marlo knows more than anyone how trying Jonah can be but she hates how people pretend as if it isn’t trying, or worse Jonah’s fault.
Theron’s Marlo is a fearless performance in a career studded with fearless performances. Many reviewers have cited how unglamorous this role and how brave of Theron it is to appear so slovenly. How quickly we forget Mad Max: Fury Road or Monster. Still, they are right about her fearlessness and brutal honesty. Theron plays Marlo as a woman besieged by time and terrified at where it has all gone.
Reitman and his cinematographer Eric Steelberg, allow a documentary feel for Tully. Not by using a handheld camera, though he does from time to time, but by how they frame a shot. We feel as if we’re peering into Marlo’s life. Oftentimes we feel as if we’re not supposed to see this. After all most movies show us a mother delighted to have given birth to a baby as opposed to Marlo’s dispassionate “Would you put her over there, please.” It’s not that she doesn’t love the child, she’s just tired.
Tully’s arrival allows Marlo sleep. It allows her time. She begins to change before our eyes. A new life seems have taken over Marlo as serenity washes over her. It’s only natural her bond with Tully would grow over time.
I mentioned earlier I could never figure out what type of movie Tully is. This is because Reitman and Cody are uninterested in genres. Their films, Tully included, are about people dealing with the messiness of themselves and those around them. But with Tully, it goes even further.
In the beginning, we have a mother on the verge of a nervous breakdown. But then Tully effortlessly turns into an exploration of Marlo, not just as a mother, but as a wife, and a woman who’s turned forty, gobsmacked at where she is. Marlo and Tully converse like characters from a Richard Linklater movie. They talk about anything and everything.
When Tully asks about Sarah, Marlo smiles sadly. She tells Tully that she’s scared for her daughter. I forget the exact line but in essence, she’s scared because her daughter is getting to the age where the invincible confidence of children begins to slip away. Marlo is a loving and observant mother. She’s just tired and a little sad and she’s not sure why.
Both Tully and Marlo contain a multitude of wisdom about life and personal well being. It’s just that each is at different ends of the experience. Marlo has lived, whereas Tully is just beginning to.
Tully comes over one night uncharacteristically angry. Marlo asks what’s wrong and Tully tells her she’s having a fight with her roommate. Tully wants to move out without telling her. Marlo advises against it. “You’ll hurt her feelings.” Tully says she would get over it, “Girls heal.” Marlo shakes her head. “No, we don’t. We might look like we’re all better, but if you look close, we’re covered in concealer.” The conversation is striking because within we see why both women are pulled to each other. Tully is the free-spirited reminder of the girl Marlo once was, and Marlo represents a path Tully might take. “Do you have any idea how much you’ve done?” Tully asks Marlo later in the film.
Mackenzie Davis plays Tully as Cody likely wrote her, a sly deconstruction of the now infamous manic pixie dream girl. A quirky effervescent woman with seemingly no real friends or responsibilities who seems hellbent on teaching Marlo the joys of life. Davis has a magnetism about her that draws us into her smile. Acting against Theron is no easy task and Davis is more than up to the challenge.
As the two women bond Tully takes another bizarre turn as Marlo becomes more and more envious of Tully. Her desire to reclaim her youth becomes increasingly evident. Tully only encourages Marlo though; Tully worships Marlo too much to be able to help her.
Cody’s narrative is a strange but beautiful mixture of cinema verite and magical realism. Stylistically and tonally, Tully never seems forced nor does it ever tip its hand. By the time we reach the last act we realize something that has been right in front of our faces all along. Earlier, in the beginning, it is mentioned Marlo has suffered postpartum depression once before.
So much of what goes on in Tully is never named or labeled. Depression, neuroatypical, anxiety, are words that are mentioned in the peripheral. That’s because Tully isn’t interested in naming anything so much as showing us how these things can affect us, even if we know the names. Knowing about depression is not the same as being aware you have it or how it impacts your life.
It’s not often a movie tackles the deglamorization of motherhood, mid-life crisis, and her battles with depression. All without breaking a sweat. Reitman infuses Tully with such confidence that even though we never know where Tully is going, we are always keen to follow.
So much of Tully works because of Stefan Grube’s editing. The montages in Tully make us feel the weight and the rapidness of time. Time tends to be abstract in movies, as in life. As Cleo Threadgoode said, “I can’t tell you when it was I got to be so old. It just sorta slipped up on me.” Marlo is flabbergasted at the state of her life and she can’t seem to understand how she got here.
Tully has car crashes, mermaids, a sex act that borderlines on a threesome, and a bicycle chase across lower Manhattan. Yet, it always feels part of a whole. It could have easily felt fractured and deeply bizarre. The narrative seamlessness is buoyed by Theron’s exquisite performance.
What I’ve always admired about Diablo Cody’s writing is how much love exists between the lines. Not just love for her characters, but love for their fears, hopes, and dreams. Despite all of the magical surrealism towards the end, Tully is grounded in love. What makes Tully so powerful is Marlo’s struggle to make peace with herself as she is now so opposed to what she hoped to be. In essence, it’s about self-love, which is often the hardest love to get.