‘Tully’ Revels in an Honest Portrayal of Motherhood (Until it Doesn’t) (FILM REVIEW)


Whatever else you might be tempted to say about Tully, positive or negative, it has to be acknowledged that the brutally grim realities of motherhood have never before been depicted the way they’re depicted here. Culturally, we like to speak in platitudes about motherhood, saying broad nothings about a woman’s sacrifice, appreciating them for their effort, and speaking vaguely about the difficulties they endure.

Never do we say what that means, however. We might smile and nod knowingly, but we keep it, for the most part, to ourselves. This tends to be reflected in our narrative treatment of motherhood, where the stresses of a new baby are played for laughs, at best, or downplayed as histrionics, at worst. Not so with Tully. Tully bares it all, casting an unflinching gaze upon the unspoken truths of what motherhood entails.

The stresses—physical, mental, emotional—are laid bare, giving us a raw glimpse at the truths that any parent knows already: Babies are hard. No, not just hard. Exhausting. Almost impossibly so. Beyond that they wreak havoc on the bodies of the women we love. Reconciling the realities of post-pregnancy stomachs and post-pregnancy breasts with the impossible standards of idealized beauty is enough to take an emotional toll on even the strongest constitutions, and so much of that is left unsaid in our culture.

That an actress like Charlize Theron, who is so often held up as the gold standard of idealized beauty, can be depicted with all the warts of motherhood feels like an important step culturally. If just one woman suffering from post-pregnancy body shame can see a woman like Theron in the unflattering light of new motherhood and feel better about herself, then Tully represents a net positive for all of us. If more women feel comfortable coming out and talking about the rage, the fear, the exhaustion, the feeling of being physically broken after seeing Theron here, then Tully has done its job.

For this reason alone, I recommend Tully. Screenwriter Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman, reuniting to complete a thematic trilogy, of sorts, that began with Juno and continued with Young Adult, have done a remarkable job capturing all the pains of motherhood we either ignore or gloss over, and the work they each do to accomplish this is nothing short of stunning. The poignancy of Cody’s script and the carefulness of Reitman’s gaze combine to show us the perils of motherhood that so often go ignored, and for this they each deserve applause and praise.

Theron, as the mother in question, Marlo, gives a dynamic, brave, and heartfelt performance. Paired primarily with Mackenzie Davis as the titular Tully, a night nurse paid for by Marlo’s brother Craig (Mark Duplass) to help alleviate the stresses of being a new mother, Theron is able to penetrate the existential anguish of both motherhood and growing older in powerful, transformative ways.

Davis, meanwhile, serves as a stark contrast to Theron’s aging exhaustion. She is youthful and exuberant, serving as a fantastic juxtaposition to Marlo and allowing each woman to play the uniqueness of their age. Tully is as yet unbeaten by life, full of hopes and dreams and passion capable only by the young and naïve, even if there is wisdom in her naivete.

Had this relationship and the narrative that develops played out the way it seemed, Tully would be near perfect; at the very least, one of the most successful depictions of motherhood yet put to film. However, there are some, shall we say, late developments in the plot that undoes much of the great work of the first 80% or so of the film.

It’s difficult for me to discuss without spoiling, but these late developments not only strain credulity, they strain the narrative itself. It turns the story into something it hasn’t previously been, and in turn adds more weight than the narrative can really handle. There’s a gutsy gumption to this game changer that I respect, certainly, but its execution is ham fisted and cringy.

There’s more I could say—more that I want to say—but shouldn’t. I will say that this dramatic turn feels like a missed opportunity to explore an extreme, rare postpartum condition (I can’t even say what it is without revealing too much, but I will say that it’s not postpartum depression however that does put you in the correct ballpark) that hasn’t ever been explored in the cinematic form. It’s taken a step too far, heaping a bit too much existential melodrama into the situation that nearly collapses the entire narrative.

Still, in the face of all that is done right for much of the movie, it’s hard to not forgive Tully. As much as the ending is both overly silly and a missed opportunity to explore an area so rarely explored, the vast majority of the film is near perfect enough to overlook the incredibly weak ending. Theron and Davis are magical in their performances, and this third pairing of Cody and Reitman offers as much emotional insight as their first pairing, Juno. For the most part it is a treat, even if the ending leaves a sour aftertaste.

Tully is now playing in theaters everywhere.

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