In Tully—the third collaboration between director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody (Juno, Young Adult)—Charlize Theron is Marlo, a soon-to-be mother-of-three who is inches, if not millimeters, away from a breakdown. Her rich brother (Mark Duplass) offers to swoop in and pay for a month-long use of a night nurse once the baby is born. When pitching his gift, Marlo’s brother suggests a night nurse helped his own wife survive the first few months of their third child. The nurse’s job is to arrive in the evening and take over baby duties while the mother gets some needed sleep, waking her up only for the occasional nursing session.
“I don’t want a stranger in my house,” Marlo protests, “It’s like a Lifetime movie where the nanny tries to kill the family and the mom survives and she has to walk with a cane at the end.”
“Get over yourself,” replies the brother.
And here’s the thing: (spoiler alert) Marlo does end up walking with a cane in the end. And, yes, she also does, in a way, get over herself.
For those of you still living in the nine-year afterglow of Juno, whose quick-witted Oscar-winning screenplay launched Diablo Cody into rare comedy-writer stardom, it might be time to put that ghost to rest. Tully is far from funny, despite the film’s strained marketing attempts to convince you otherwise.
The first act of the film shows Marlo as she desperately attempts to keep it all together. She waits until the baby is “about to pop” before taking maternity leave from her unfulfilling job in HR. She sits slack-faced at the kitchen table while her children eat microwave pizzas for dinner and her husband (Ron Livingston) comes home from work to button-crunch video games upstairs. She gets into a screaming match with her children’s school principal when the principal suggests her son might need more care than she is able to provide.
Here, the film has done an interesting job in showing the realities of a mother who is forced to take care of everything herself, while also making you guiltily aware of your sympathy for the children on the receiving end of that care. When pregnant Marlo defensively orders a decaf latte after being righteously told by an older woman that decaf coffee still contains traces of caffeine, or when Marlo loudly bumps her newborns’ carrier against a wall and angrily declares “She’s fine!” without slowing down to check, Cody and Reitman force us to think about the ways in which we shame women who fall short of the unrealistic expectations of aggrandized motherhood.
Indeed, where Tully gets a chance to shine are in these tiny moments of lived-in motherhood, where we are reminded as we watch just how rare it is, even in 2018, to show the less glorious aspects of pregnancy and childbirth. In one memorable scene, Marlo’s son spills milk all over her shirt. Marlo, in a gesture that suggests the spill was the straw that broke the camel’s back, rips her shirt off, revealing her postpartum belly wrinkled and flapping loosely over her pants. “What’s wrong with your body?” her daughter asks. The silence that follows is its own sort of answer.
The second half of the film changes gears with the arrival of the night nurse (a doe-eyed Mackenzie Davis) tasked to save the day and return exhausted Marlo to a state of rested and glowing motherhood. Where the first half of the film began a dialogue about the way in which we value-judge mothers, the second half seems more interested in reinforcing the now all-too-tiring, gender-stereotypical suburban roles of its characters. Why, we want to ask, must this “ugly” part of motherhood be something a woman is tasked with “getting over”? Why must we continue to watch women like Theron (who spent the summer of 2015 tearing up the screen as the bad-ass heroine of Fury Road) stretch herself to the point of breaking while her husband sits upstairs with headphones on, deaf and blind to the needs of his family?
I left the theater clinging happily to the work this film did in continuing to destigmatize the parts of motherhood that society too often shies away from—the realities of the impact of childbirth and pregnancy on the female body. However, I can’t help but also be reminded that it’s been almost fifteen years since Dove launched its famous ad campaign declaring real beauty was found in real women. Why, all these years later, are little moments depicting this same thing still enough to carry a film? In a current box office that also features Schumer’s I Feel Pretty, about a woman who hits her head and suddenly has the confidence in thinking she looks like a model, it feels both revelatory and tiresome that some of the biggest Oscar-winning women of Hollywood still feel the need to use their platform on narratives where women must be convinced that their own physicality is worthy of love. Women deserve a narrative that moves beyond the assessment of their bodies. All across the world women have been rising up and marching to demand a more complicated dialogue on female identity, and it’s time our on-screen narratives catch up.