Ever since Tom Cruise claimed mastery over the entire field of psychiatry and chastised Brooke Shields for taking antidepressants to treat her postpartum depression, the question has lingered in the wider culture over how exactly to discuss what happens to women in that hectic postnatal period. We’ve debated the existence of postpartum depression, how to treat it, how to understand it, and where to turn for help. It is a particularly fraught conversation that deserves to be steered by women, not men. After all, as Shields accurately surmised in her response to Cruise, “I’m going to take a wild guess and say that Mr. Cruise has never suffered from postpartum depression.” Now, one woman has brought her own postpartum experience to the screen.

Tully, a film directed by a man (Jason Reitman) but written (Diablo Cody) and produced (Charlize Theron) by women, is a heightened depiction of Cody’s own postnatal experience. The once infamous stripper/blogger-turned-screenwriter, Cody is now a mother of three, and her third time around inspired her to ring up old Juno and Young Adult collaborator Reitman with the idea for Tully. As she told Collider:

I had gone through the incredibly sort of intense and transformative of giving birth three times. And it had gotten to the point where I thought, alright, what do I have to say about this? I used this process, the process of writing the script, as a form of therapy. It really kind of helped me through an intense and anxious time in my life. Because for whatever reason, parenthood gets easier for some people, but for me, making that jump from two kids to three was just brutal. And I just … you know, I guess my two choices were psychiatric care or to try and channel some of those painful emotions into a script. And so I did the latter.

In the film, Charlize Theron plays Marlo, a struggling mother with a present, but inattentive husband (Ron Livingston, perfectly communicating sincere cluelessness), young special needs son, and loving daughter. When we meet Marlo, she is mere days away from her due date for child #3 and is clearly desperate for someone – anyone, really – to move past platitudes and actually see the physical and mental pain she is in. Instead, she has an incredibly well-off brother (Mark Duplass) who just wants the old, pre-pregnancy version of his sister back and a sister-in-law who has three kids of her own and somehow managed to keep going to the gym well into each of her pregnancies.

The brother offers Marlo the services of a nurse to come and take care of their newborn during the night. That way, they can actually get some sleep and practice self-care. However, Marlo views this as a form of outsourcing parenthood and resists. Then the baby actually comes and demands far more of Marlo than she anticipated, partially because she’s older and doesn’t have as much energy as she did with her first two kids and also because her husband is often out of town on business and is otherwise useless even when he is around. Suddenly, a nurse sounds like a godsend.

Thus, Tully (Mackenzie Davis, long live Halt and Catch Fire) is hired and arrives like a nocturnal Mary Poppins, sprinkling her proverbial fairy dust to clean house, rock the baby to sleep, and allow Marlo to slowly get back to being herself again. Moreover, Tully finally allows Marlo to feel seen and okay with asking for/needing help. Her husband wants to help but clearly has no idea how to do it and doesn’t fully understand what Marlo is going through. Tully does. Predictably, the generational divide between the young and energetic Tully and older and tired Marlo creates a certain amount of enviousness, but the two become fast friends, equally in awe of one another.

And that’s it. There’s not much more to Tully in terms of story. Tully and Marlo have a series of nighttime conversations about life, both the promise of the future and regrets of the past, and their bond grows stronger with each passing night. It all builds to a twist which anyone with a high movie IQ will see coming a mile away. But Tully isn’t aiming to be some baroque narrative with an entirely shocking final reveal. It clearly wants you to be surprised at the end, but the film still works if you guess the twist early.

Instead, Tully is a remarkably insightful and moving character study of a woman suffering in relative silence. The studio is running with the tagline “The Mother Side of the Story,” and that’s fairly spot-on. Tully is not the Hollywoodized version of motherhood but instead the mind-numbing monotony, enrichening but also confusing, and energy-draining version we rarely see on film. Reitman’s judicious editing, Cody’s smartly observed script, and Theron’s go-for-broke central performance combine to bring this to life in often brilliant fashion.

But the version of postnatal motherhood depicted in Tully is not the same for every woman. Moreover, the solution the film ultimately seems to offer is not as wide-ranging as it could be. For this reason, Tully has been a source of controversy for months. As the Star Tribune noted:

The movie opened last week. But Ann Smith, president of the nonprofit group Postpartum Support International, said her organization has been fielding complaints about the film since March, when spoilers began to circulate.

“The mommy world is up in arms,” she said, referring to survivors of perinatal mood disorders, diagnosed in one out of every seven women during pregnancy or postpartum. “I can see why there’s a lot of anger out there, and I think they have a right to it.”

Now, the film is being boycotted by a lot of people, many of whom haven’t even seen it yet. On this point, I’ll turn the conversation over to someone who has actual firsthand knowledge on the subject. Barry Hardiman, an NPR journalist and frequent contributor to the Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast, is a mother of two who suffered from postpartum depression with each child. In her podcast review of Tully, she made the following impassioned argument:

In the postpartum mental health world, they’re calling Tully a missed opportunity. I certainly acknowledge women should get help maybe not in the way we see Marlo get help and these are very serious illnesses that can be devastating, but I think what that misses is it assumes Tully is the only version we’re going to get. For me, this is the first real portrayal of motherhood on the big screen, and to me it is so sad to hear that community say, “Oh, we lost our opportunity. We’re never going to see postpartum depression or a leaky body on film again.” No, we should see a bunch of them and allow Diablo Cody to tell her story and use postpartum depression and worse as a plot device. Everybody gets to tell their story. Let’s have all the stories, and if you are someone out there listening to his and you are thinking you’re not going to go because of that please go and support this film so that you can get more and more opportunities. Tell your friends. Argue about it. Say, “That’s not me. That was you.” Talk about and then go write your own [experience].

THE BOTTOM LINE

Every time Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman get together they make a movie about growing up – Juno’s about growing up too fast, Young Adult about waiting too long to grow up. Now, Tully tackles how to accept adulthood and say goodbye to who you used to be, for better and for worse. It might just be their best and most mature effort yet.

RANDOM PARTING THOUGHTS

  1. Tully’s use of quick cuts and montage is often ingenious. Someone like Edgar Wright always uses that kind of editing for jokes and kinetic style points. Here, Reitman uses it to communicate monotony and tedium, such as waiting for the baby to crown during a protracted delivery or pumping breast milk. One particular highlight is how we hear snippets of every single song from Cyndi Lauper’s landmark album She’s So Unusual to form the soundtrack of Marlo’s long, nighttime drive to her old Brooklyn neighborhood, perfectly communicating just how far removed she is from her old life now that she lives in the suburbs.
  2. Like Tarantino or Kevin Smith before her, characters in Diablo Cody movies don’t always talk like real people. Instead, they talk like hyper-articulate, witty extensions of Cody’s own pop culture-infused mind. Tully, however, is Cody at her most naturalistic. The random factoids Tully spouts about the biology of motherhood sound believable coming from a new college graduate, and the various little asides Marlo offers are limited enough to make her a believable smartass.
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Posted by Kelly Konda

Grew up obsessing over movies and TV shows. Worked in a video store. Minored in film at college because my college didn't offer a film major. Worked in academia for a while. Have been freelance writing and running this blog since 2013.

12 Comments

  1. The backlash is so stupid, although the marketing for this film was way off base. Great review!

    Reply

    1. “Great review!”

      Thanks!

      “although the marketing for this film was way off base.”

      That does seem to be a source of a lot of the backlash. Heck, the women sitting next to me at the movie last night quite loudly said, “Well, that wasn’t what I expected it to be.” They then said they liked it, though.

      On my end, I only ever saw one trailer for this movie, and I might have only ever seen that trailer twice, if that. I recall thinking it might be a simple intergenerational examination of motherhood between a mother and the younger woman hired to help her, but the odd tone of the trailer also led me to suspect a twist was in order. I thought either Fight Club or The Hand That Rocks the Cradle. I was half right.

      “he backlash is so stupid”

      Generally, when a backlash is led by people writing essays explaining why they are refusing to see/read/listen to something I don’t have much time for it. It’s simply not a complete and fair conversation to be having as a culture if a sizable portion of the participants outright refuse to watch something. If someone sees AND hates or has problems with Tully then I’m all ears. That person will probably have more firsthand knowledge about postpartum depression than I ever will as a man, but at least give the movie a chance, you know.

      Reply

      1. From what I was reading (and i covered this a little in my review) is that women (moms) were upset that the movie didn’t fully address postpartum depression nor did it address her seeking help…..which…..is ridiculous bc not everyone has that option, you know?

  2. Great post thank you Kelly. The audience for this film is not the medical or the motherhood advocacy fraternities. It is the general world of cinema, and this film conveys insight into the realiities of post-natal mental health. It is a highly original and well acted case study in post-natal psychosis and thus makes an important contribution to community understanding of the realities of motherhood for some mothers.

    Reply

  3. Good article kk. Thinking of watching.

    Reply

  4. Follow me?

    Reply

  5. I saw this movie last night based upon your recommendation and liking Mackenzie Davis from HaCF. I’m amused that the staff member briefly forgot which movie I wanted to see and thought I said Deadpool 2. I was probably the only single male in the theatre – lots of couples… well, it was a Sunday 8:40 pm session in final weeks so maybe there were only 20 people total in the theatre.

    > Barry Hardiman, an NPR journalist… is a mother of two who suffered from postpartum depression with each child.

    Is that a mistake? Barry is not usually a female name.

    I’m a little surprised that the Bechel Test hasn’t been mentioned yet and this film hasn’t been mentioned on the Bechel Test website. Does it count (because you know I can’t mention the spoiler)?

    Marlo’s brother and sister-in-law: they captured their insufferability very well.

    Am I the only person who thought of Pinky and the Brain when Marlo asks Tully what she does during the day and Tully says “try to take over the world”.

    Overall, I enjoyed the film for the acting. I enjoyed seeing Charlize Theron having a short fuse then acting as a middle-aged unfit woman trying to catch up to someone half her age. Mackenzie Davis’s character was very Cameron-from-HaCF-esque.

    SPOILER WARNING:
    I’m struggling with the ending. Gosh, I just wish they went for a lame unexciting ending.

    Marlo had appeared much better to everyone around her but fatigue is a physical limitation and can’t be faked out of. The husband never once went downstairs and introduced himself before his nighttime gaming session????

    Regarding the controversy: the Huffington post says “And while postpartum depression affects 15-20 per cent of women, postpartum psychosis is a much rarer perinatal mental illness affecting just one to two women out of every 1,000 deliveries.”
    https://www.huffingtonpost.com.au/2018/04/26/charlize-therons-movie-tully-angers-maternal-mental-health-advocates_a_23421389/

    1 to 2 out of 1000 deliveries = 0.1 to 0.2%

    CT Post says that in 2017, a baby is born every 8 seconds. https://www.ctpost.com/local/article/2017-census-U-S-babies-to-arrive-every-8-seconds-10824452.php The maths for that works out to be 10800 babies per day an 10-20 psychosis cases per day.

    That’s still rare. Now, the Huff doesn’t say much about these episodes of psychosis other than statistics for how many result in injury to the children (4%). It doesn’t say how long those episodes of psychosis last or how severe they are.

    Reply

    1. “Is that a mistake? Barry is not usually a female name.”

      Nope. Not a mistake. That’s her name. As a man with a girl’s name, I can relate (though I admit, you’re far more likely to meet a guy named “Kelly” than you are to meet a woman named “Barry”).

      “I was probably the only single male in the theatre – lots of couples… well, it was a Sunday 8:40 pm session in final weeks so maybe there were only 20 people total in the theatre.”

      Sadly, I saw it weeks ago and that’s about as crowded as the theater was back then. Tully is really struggling at the box office. It might not even make it to $10m domestic when all is said and done.

      “I’m a little surprised that the Bechel Test hasn’t been mentioned yet and this film hasn’t been mentioned on the Bechel Test website. Does it count (because you know I can’t mention the spoiler)?”

      I feel like the Bechdel Test was always meant to be a conversation starter, and by now the conversation around gender in Hollywood has expanded so far beyond a simple “Do two female characters talk to each other about something other than a man?” that praising Tully for passing the Bechdel Test isn’t the kind of thing that occurs to people as immediately as it used to. That being said, why exactly the actual Bechdel Test website doesn’t mention the film I do not know.

      “Marlo’s brother and sister-in-law: they captured their insufferability very well.”

      When the sister-in-law casually mentioned going to the gym so late in her pregnancy, completely misreading what Marlo was about to say and/or thinking, I was right there with Charlize in wanting to punch her. Also, as the Creep films and now several others have shown Mark Duplass is bizarrely fantastic at playing insufferable.

      “Am I the only person who thought of Pinky and the Brain when Marlo asks Tully what she does during the day and Tully says “try to take over the world”.”

      No, I did too. Given Diablo Cody’s love of pop culture, I took the reference to be entirely intentional. I mean, it’s a word for word quote of one of the show’s most famous catchphrases.

      “I enjoyed seeing Charlize Theron having a short fuse then acting as a middle-aged unfit woman trying to catch up to someone half her age. Mackenzie Davis’s character was very Cameron-from-HaCF-esque.”

      It doesn’t hurt that Davis looks and dresses like she just drove over from the set of Halt and Catch Fire’s 4th season. Her Tully is quite a bit like Cameron just minus a lot of the angst and, by the 4th season, baggage. I don’t know that Cameron ever smiled quite as serenely as Tully does when she’s simply watching Marlo breastfeed.

      “I’m struggling with the ending. Gosh, I just wish they went for a lame unexciting ending.”

      The ending is problematic. For sure. I’d argue the movie actually works better if you watch it the entire time suspecting or knowing Tully is Marlo’s younger self. That was certainly my experience (not knowing, but having guessed the twist almost immediately). But the movie isn’t structured to work like that. It really is structured to be a big surprise, but beyond its predictability, the twist introduces a lot of questions the film doesn’t know how to answer.

      “That’s still rare. Now, the Huff doesn’t say much about these episodes of psychosis other than statistics for how many result in injury to the children (4%). It doesn’t say how long those episodes of psychosis last or how severe they are.”

      Look at you and your fancy math. Good digging there.

      Tully, to me, is the product of the exhausted mind of a mother who also happens to be a movie fanatic. It was born out of Diablo Cody’s need to feel seen and heard at a time that pop culture assumes most women to be on cruise control (i.e., onto your third baby). Beyond that, it was her therapeutic exercise in letting go of her former self. A tired mother with an inattentive husband just wants someone to talk to at night while rocking her baby to sleep. Understandable. Relatable. But, what if she hallucinates someone to talk to, Fight Club style?

      I could be wrong, but from what I’ve read Cody’s conception of the film went roughly something like that and was inspired by her own experience but not entirely based on it. I don’t know if she was actually a legit psychosis sufferer. The film feels like more like a writing exercise taking someone’s real experience to a narrative extreme.

      I ultimtely feel like this movie helped me better understand postpartum depression, and from the male point of view it certainly beats home the idea that your spouse won’t always know how to ask for help and it’s your job to be there for her in those moments, in ways the hubby in this film never is, at least not until the ending.

      Reply

  6. Thouht I would give this a try based on your review and the catchy film poster. A very well told film and well done Charlize on a great performance. I enjoyed this and wanted to see it to the end. Its a short film but long enough. The way it tackled autism at school was prticularly touching. i got to say though **spoiler warning* I got that sixth sense twist as soon as the baby sitter was going in their bedroom. It was very obvious but still entertaining. Mrs Dexter enjoyed it more though saying finally a film where it shows what it feels like to be a woman.Not sure how to take that but thought I would share.

    Reply

    1. Yeah, the bedroom bit was where the seams started to show. It just seemed strange that the husband finally meets Tully for the first time and “she” is like “let’s have a threesome’ or whatever.

      Reply

      1. It’s a really bizarre scene. It’s definitely the one you imagine Diablo Cody looking at on the page and worrying it makes the twist blatantly obvious if it wasn’t already. If she thought that, she’d was right.

    2. I’m glad you gave the film a chance. “Mrs Dexter enjoyed it more though saying finally a film where it shows what it feels like to be a woman.” Doubly glad to hear that. Tully, to me, is the type of film guys can appreciate and admire but women can truly feel and root for. The twist is predictable, of course, but the twist, predictable or not, has been a dealbreaker for a lot of people, those who feel the film cheapens itself with such a narrative cliche and then enters into truly problematic commentary about post-partum depression. I happen to disagree.

      Reply

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