A no holds barred, unapologetic story of the realities of motherhood. Focus Features’ Tully starring Charlize Theron is a brilliant film that shies not away from what being a mom is truly about during postpartum depression, a subject seldom touched on in film or TV. Directed and written by Juno’s Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody respectively, this film represents the best work of Reitman and Cody since the groundbreaking Juno which was followed up by the outstanding Young Adult, and showcases just how incredibly diverse an actor Theron is. See her in a role unlike her typical roles as she so incredibly authentically brings to life a middle-class working mother who is faced with many obstacles as she rears her three kids, one of which is a newborn. As a male, I cannot begin to fathom just how difficult it is to be a mother (or by extension, a single father); but after watching this film, I have a whole new respect for the many hats that a mom has to wear in order to manage a household. Some might even say that this film is so incredibly effective at laying out the hardships of being a mom, that it may work better than more conventional birth control. However, the film is not only about the trials of motherhood, but it also spends time on the joys. Tully is what I characterize as a dark comedy that has some truly terrifying moments.
Already the working mother of two kids, one of which displays signs of a developmental disorder, Marlo (Charlize Theron) is not pregnant with baby number three, in what her brother identifies as an “unplanned pregnancy.” Marlo’s wealthy brother desires to help his sister by gifting her a night nanny in order to help Marlo through the rough transition of a newborn in an already chaotic house. Marlo’s husband is hardworking, makes lunches, and assists his oldest daughter with her homework, but fails to understand that Marlo needs to be taken care of as well. In order to not go completely insane during postpartum depression, Marlo reluctantly decides that she could use the night nanny that her brother offered to pay for. Hesitant to the extravagance of having a nanny at first, Marlo forms an unexpected bond with the unconventional, challenging hipster Mary Poppins named Tully.
No pretense about this story of motherhood. Cody’s brilliant penchant for self-deprecation, dry humor, and stark naked emotion is witnessed once again in Tully. I cannot think of a present screenwriter that could have created such a compelling story. Unlike her timeless modern classic Juno, Cody shies away from the comedy you may be accustomed to seeing from her, and focus on the darker side of being a mother. And it works superbly. I laughed, cringed, and cheered during the film, and so did many of the others in the audience. There is an authenticity in this story that is seldom seen in other melodramas. Possessing a raw, gritty narrative, Tully will have you empathizing quickly with the struggles Marlo continues to face throughout the film. There is so much that is praiseworthy in this story; but unfortunately the sharp, precision that supports the first two acts becomes a little dull during the realization (or resolution) on the third act–the same chutzpah that was in the DNA of the majority of the movie is not as apparent at the end. What Tully lacks is a well-defined external goal. The weak end game is uncharacteristic of Cody, as both Juno and Young Adult had solid realizations. As I tell my screenwriting students, dealing with life is not a goal (it’s incidental). Still, everything else about this film is effectively compelling.
Theron displays a genuine, uncompromising commitment to character in this motion picture. Aside from the fact she literally put on 50lbs for the role (that’s right, no fat suit), she provides audiences with a fearless portrayal that is both vulnerable and fiery. Coupled with waves of mania, anger, and complete exhaustion, Theron delivers a razor-sharp performance that will leave you breathless and bleeding from the unbridled intensity and emotional rawness. In this slice of life story, there was certainly the room to demonize Marlo’s husband, the sister-in-law, the former roommate, and school principal, but Cody includes these individuals that many moms actually have in their lives but chooses to focus on the physiological and emotional struggle of Marlo as she recovers from her unplanned pregnancy. Of course, there is a brilliantly funny scene of Marlo confronting the pretentious private school principal. It’s the kind of encounter that many of us want to have with those who refuse to shoot straight and annoyingly avoid confrontation because they are so afraid to be candid, and it just comes off as a facade. Theron’s ability to completely sell a mother on the verge of a breakdown who’s constantly facing situations in which she asks herself how-the-hell-am-I-going-to-get-through-this is unparalleled. I cannot think of another movie that has a character quite like Marlo in Tully.
The film’s title character is a Mary Poppins of sorts that comes to the aid of Marlo when she is at her wits’ end. You may be wondering why the film is named after the night nanny instead of Marlo. For the same reason Mary Poppins is the name of the story that is really about Mr. Banks. Marlo may be the central character, but Tully (Mackenzie Davis) is so incredibly instrumental in supporting Marlo through this time. Furthermore, she opens her mind to new possibilities and the joys of being a mom, even when Marlo isn’t feeling it. Tully embodies that free spirit that many of us have or had in our 20s that somehow gets lost as we get older. Tully enables Marlo to channel her younger self in an effort to be emotionally healthier for her kids. Taking care of yourself first so you can be there for your kids, is one of Tully’s many messages to Marlo. There is a whimsy about Tully that is contagious, and will put smiles on the audience’s faces amidst the majority of the film’s darker moments.
You’ll encounter all the different kinds of people that an emotionally struggling mom has to deal with on a regular basis. From an out-of-touch snobby sister-in-law to a husband who just doesn’t get you, from a pretentious and absurdly conflict aversive school principal to a former roommate, the film provides commentary on how each of these kinds of relationships affect a mom who’s trying her best to keep sane and not murder everyone. The film even touches on how having a kid with a developmental disability is physiologically and psychologically draining, even though you love your kid unconditionally. It’s important to note that Marlo’s husband is shown to be an active participant in his family by way of, not only his financial support, but being there for his kids in the evening and helping to make lunches. However, he does withdraw to playing video games after the kids have gone to bed; but that’s because he is like many fathers that are unaware that their spouses need to be comforted, cared for, and shown appreciation during this rough transitional time. Hopefully, after watching this movie, fathers will have a better idea of what their spouse may be going through. One of the strongest themes one can write into a film is a commentary on what it means to be human–the human condition–but seldom has a film been so specific to comment on what it means to be a mother. In this respect, Tully is provocatively groundbreaking.
Such a perfect film for the upcoming Mothers Day weekend. Even if you are not a mom or (let’s not forget) single father, there is something to learn from this film because you may have a mom or single father in your circle of friends or family. Never before has a film stripped away all the magic of motherhood at the time when your kids are little. No frivolous, ostentatious gender reveal parties, gym moms-to-be, or ridiculously lavish baby showers for this mom. Why? Because those are events and experiences typically found on Pinterest, in the movies, or reserved for upperclass society that is hasn’t a clue what it’s like to be a struggling mother balancing her full-time career and being a full-time mom. Tully tells it like it is for so many, and why it is such an outstanding motion picture.
Ryan is a screenwriting professor at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog!
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