Tully falters in the third act, but it breaks ground for mothers
Tully, written by Diablo Cody and directed by Jason Reitman, chronicles the wayward lives of a suburban family expecting a third child, and quickly establishes itself as a film that, for all its tongue-in-cheek comedy, characterizes the trauma of postpartum depression.
Marlo, the mother played by Charlize Theron, already has her hands full with the day-to-day minutiae of driving her two other children to school, meeting with guidance counselors, preparing dinner for the family and other such mundane activities, ad nauseam. But Marlo’s thankless toils have whittled her down to the core and her sanity starts to noticeably slip after the third baby is delivered.
Her brother Craig, played by Mark Duplass, enters with a miracle cure: a duty-free nanny, a night owl of sorts who looks after newborns so that fatigued mothers can get some much needed shut-eye and regain their sanity.
That night nurse is named Tully. Played by Mackenzie Davis, she is a free spirit with an encyclopedia-like repertoire of information akin to Snapple’s “Real Facts” at her fingertips and a brilliant smile for every situation. She comes highly recommended, Marlo’s brother reassures.
What becomes blatantly obvious to anyone who has ever hired a night nanny or sitter is that Tully is too good to be true.
She plunges into the household like a bat out of hell and immediately gets to work taking care of Marlo’s baby, Mia.
A natural bond forms and the rapport between Marlo and Tully becomes infectious. As the pair burns the midnight oil reminiscing over boys, their sex lives and the hardships of childcare, their dialogue gives voice to a conversation that has flown under Hollywood’s radar for quite some time: the plight of motherhood.
Sure, there have been plenty of groundbreaking films with strong mothers — one needs to look no further than Laurie Metcalf’s performance in Lady Bird as an example — but such films tend to not be as focused on the parents as they are on their divergent children. The mothers may win best supporting actress at the Oscars, or at least settle for the nomination, but they rarely play the lead.
With most of Tully’s screen time focusing on its two leads, the rest of the cast often feels characterized by their dynamic with Marlo alone.
There is not much to be said for the child actors, as they are quite adept at giving Marlo and the audience migraines, but there is often no better form of birth control than watching what having bratty, misunderstood kids is actually like. The well-meaning, but hapless husband and breadwinner Drew, played by Ron Livingston, feels more like a mannequin than a father figure — fathers hiding in plain sight being the new trend for films these days — and he stays that way for good.
Even if Tully establishes early on that Drew’s distance is due to his demanding job, it is frustrating that Marlo is the one who needs to go through an entire journey of self-discovery just to win back an ungrateful family.
Despite attempts to articulate the jarring shift and resulting perils of turning 30, describing it to be akin to “a garbage truck” rounding the corner “at 5 a.m.,” Marlo never has anything to teach Tully. Worse still, these moments lack honesty; they drone on in heavy-handed melancholy until another joke lightens the mood and the conversation segues back to more of Marlo’s insecurities.
While Tully never quite loses its charm, the final act of the film feels wholly misaligned with its character. After a slew of unnecessary decisions lands Marlo in the hospital, a doctor making their rounds diagnoses her with depression and all but pats her on the shoulder.
With 15 minutes left to Tully’s runtime, there is not much room left for catharsis; indeed, there is none to be found. What the viewer gets instead is the mental image of a happy family, sans sitter, bonding while an acoustic guitar is tuned in the background.
After Tully has made off like Mary Poppins and all but vanishes into thin air, the film needlessly begs the question of whether she even existed in the first place. Maybe this is an unabridged sequel to Lynne Ramsay’s thriller, You Were Never Really Here; or, more likely, this is just an ending too full of itself to notice the gaping plot holes of its wake.
By all accounts, the film fails to re-establish any more of the charm or charisma that won its audience over, which is certainly tragic because of how easy it was to empathize and even identify with the two leading women from the start.
Amid the rave reviews and vindicated mothers everywhere, Tully has also received some criticism for its depiction of postpartum depression, which is not without precedent.
Although Tully’s “show, don’t tell” cinematic style does well to put the viewer in Marlo’s shoes, all previous attempts to recognize and define her emotional state are swept under the rug or regurgitated into witty, albeit empty jokes.
But despite the missteps in the final act, which undercut the significance of Tully’s potential message, the film hits enough of the right notes at its start to leave viewers with a doting impression of Marlo and her personal journey. Thanks to its comedy, Tully is, at the very least, a parable of motherhood and its woes are made palpable.