F or the first thirty minutes of Jason Reitman’s Tully, it seems as if he and screenwriter Diablo Cody (Juno, Young Adult) have turned out one of the most daring portraits of motherhood since We Need to Talk About Kevin. At its best—which is those first thirty minutes—Tully has its feet on the ground by turning the camera on the overwhelming, often invisible work by everyday mother and the deliberating depression that can rise out of the postpartum period. Did I mention that Tully doubles as a comedy? And a wickedly funny one at that!
In the film, Marlo (Charlize Theron, brilliant as ever) is an overworked mother of two, with a third on the way. Her husband Drew (Ron Livingston) “does what he can”, which seems to be taking naps, playing video games and going on business trips. Marlo, on the other hand, spends every waking hour attempting to manage her son’s behavioral problems, her daughter’s low self-esteem, the physical toll pregnancy has on one’s body, and upkeeping the home. Shortly after the third child is born, Reitman ingeniously utilizes a series of quick, rhythmic cuts (diaper changes, breast-pumping, feedings) to show the pressures of parent and the constant exhaustion Marlo endures.
Enter the second act, where we finally meet the film’s titular character, a 26-year-old night nanny gifted to Marlo by her affluent brother. Tully’s (Mackenzie Davis) presence has an immediate calming effect on the household. Things begin to shift from Eraserhead to Mary Poppins, as Tully cleans the house and bakes cupcakes while Marlo gets some much-deserved rest. Things are going so well, in fact, that Marlo finds herself growing close to the effortless sex and wise-beyond-her-years Tully. But maybe too close?
Towards the end of the film, Reitman and Cody introduce a sharp left turn that’s bound divide audiences. From my perspective, Tully’s final act descends into a rather contrived conclusion that undermines the film’s initial commitment to realism. And then there’s Tully. Why is the film named after her? Sure, it’s cute that Cody created a manic pixie dream girl for moms, but she’s nowhere near as interesting as Marlo. Nearly every scene with Tully in it, involves her fluttering around Marlo’s house asking flirtatious questions about Marlo’s sex life, being whimsical, and/or waxing on about her pseudo-hippie philosophies. How did this perfectly perfect girl find her way into this harrowing film about motherhood? Again, it really breaks with the realist tone. This is not to say they couldn’t have a happy-go-lucky millennial enter Marlo’s life, but making her so saintly seems to cheapen things.
It’s almost guaranteed that Tully will inspire a lot of write-ups where journalists make gestures towards “feminist readings” of the film. They aren’t exactly wrong to do so, but you can only take the conversation so far. Yes, Tully should be celebrated for putting an unflinchingly honest, deeply sympathetic representation of motherhood on screen; I’d be hard-pressed to come up with a film that does a better job at showing the realities (both emotional and physical) of the postpartum period. However, it quickly becomes apparent that the film doesn’t have much more to offer, at least on a narrative level, than this. There are glimpses of something on the level of Juno and Up In The Air here, but Tully’s inability to commit to its initial vision makes for a frustrating watch. | Cait Lore