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
- 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.
- 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.