I saw Tully over the weekend with two women who are mothers, like me. Once upon a time, we all had toddlers at the same playschool, but now our kids are in kindergarten, each in a different school. We were all really looking forward to seeing a movie that dwelled on the experience of motherhood, especially the early baby years. Movies are full of mothers, of course, but they don’t usually spend a long time in the landscape of babyhood, and the unsettling transition between pregnancy and, I don’t know—what do you call not being pregnant? Post-partum? Is it that there is not good word for it, or is that I have a six-month-old baby and my vocabulary is still a little out of focus as my mind continues to process the experience of pregnancy, childbirth, and a whole new person in our family?
The best thing about Tully was the way it caught the mood of this post-partum period. It’s a weird, spongy phase, when you’re soaking up so much of life, and at the same time, completely wrung out. When we first meet Marlo (Charlize Theron), the mother at the center of Tully, she’s nine months pregnant with her third child and just a few days shy of her due date. I figured she would deliver the baby immediately, but instead we spend a few days with Tully in the final days of her pregnancy—an eerie, vulnerable window when you’re right on the precipice, whether it’s your first or your third. Marlo is especially vulnerable because people keep reminding her that she suffered from post-partum depression with her second child. Her third pregnancy, we are led to believe, was not planned, and money is already tight with two kids. Marlo’s brother is so concerned that he offers to pay for a night nurse to help care for the new baby. But Marlo turns down the offer, out of pride, inertia, and the vague sense that she should be able to handle it all. There’s also some simmering resentment around her brother’s wealth, which makes Marlo’s perfectly normal middle class lifestyle feel shabby.
After the baby is born, Marlo changes her mind about the night nanny and calls the woman her brother recommended. Her name is Tully, and she’s immediately wonderful—full of optimism, intellectual interests, and above all, energy! She cooks and cleans while Marlo is sleeping; she’s also a friend to Marlo, and chats with her late into the night. Marlo is grateful for her, but a little unnerved by their evolving nanny-mommy relationship, which strikes her as odd, and lacking in boundaries. I can’t write any more without spoiling the movie, and this is a movie that can be spoiled, with an ending that helps to make sense of Marlo and Tully’s weird dynamic.
For me, the ending also clarified the themes of the movie, which I saw as a story about female identity, and how women integrate their older and younger selves, and different parts of their personality, in general. For women this is especially complicated because there is such cultural pressure to remain physically young, and also to perform multiple roles at once: wife, mother, daughter, sister, cleaner, cook, breadwinner, volunteer, etc. There were several lines of dialogue that spoke to this feeling of being stretched too thin; one of the favorites is when Marlo tells Tully that if you look closely, all women are covered in concealer. It’s an observation that is both literal and figurative—and funny, too, with its wink to the beauty industry and all its borderline sinister product names, like concealer.
Tully was written by Diablo Cody, who is probably best known for her first movie, Juno, about a pregnant teenager, Juno, who decides to give her baby up for adoption. There are some interesting parallels between Tully and Juno, because there’s an unexpected pregnancy at the center of each movie. The big difference is that Marlo is 40 and married with children, and Juno is 16 and single and childless. You might think that Marlo is more prepared for motherhood than Juno, and superficially, she is, but in the most important ways, she’s just as overwhelmed as Juno. Theron plays Marlo as observant and wry with flashes of anger, but also as someone who is detached from her emotions and her circumstances. Her dream life is intense, with vivid images of mermaids—a creature who is a decidedly stuck between worlds and identities.