If I were asked to boil the message of Jason Reitman’s Tully down to one sentence, I may say, “Parenting sucks.”
That would be a bit unfair and reductionist. The film is not anti-children, nor is it entirely doom and gloom. It is, however, a very realistic and somber take on the darker side if parenting. The film follows Marlo (Charlize Theron), a mother of three children, including a newborn baby. Her life is very difficult in the boring but exhausting way a normal mother’s is. Her son is having trouble at school, her husband travels for his job, the baby doesn’t sleep, she doesn’t sleep, and it. Never. Ends. So reluctantly, but in desperation, she takes up her snide rich brother’s offer and hires a night nanny, whose free spirit and heartfelt dedication enables a personal renaissance for Marlo.
The film’s greatest strength without question is its unflinching honesty. Few films have ever captured parenthood in the raw as Reitman and Co. have here, made more striking by Marlo’s mostly unhelpful husband. Nothing about Marlo’s family situations is particularly sensational. Her husband is not a cruelly selfish chauvinist. He loves his family, but is mostly oblivious to their needs, and travels for work a lot. Mia, the new baby, is not *trying* to ruin her mother’s life, but like most newborns, she doesn’t sleep well and needs a lot of attention. The closest the film comes to abnormal is in their son Jonah, who has an undiagnosed and untreated sensory processing disorder, but even this is hardly “abnormal” – some research suggests it may be as common as ADHD.
But the film is not just about the grueling nature of motherhood. It’s about the expectations of motherhood as much as it is about the experience itself. The whole point of Tully’s care isn’t that she helps Marlo survive, but that she helps her rise to the expectations of those around her. She not only cares for her child and get some sleep, but Tully also helps her in both direct and indirect ways with cleaning the house, making Minion cupcakes, wearing makeup, and even her physical relationship with her husband. Tully tells Marlo, “You can’t treat the part without treating the whole,” and it’s the whole of Marlo – especially those parts of her that are most relevant to social standards – that Tully aims to treat.
In so doing, the film provokes a great deal of empathy for mothers, especially (although this isn’t explicitly part of the film) in an era when mothers broadcast only the best moments of their lives through filtered Instagram posts. In contrast, Marlo sees herself as a depressed mess. This is illustrated rather well when one of the kids spills water on her shirt, she takes her shirt off, and one of the kids says, “Mom, what’s wrong with your body?”
This is also a good transition to talk about some of the film’s more problematic content. While some of the film’s R-rated content makes sense given the nature of the film’s topic (there is some brief nonsexual nudity when Marlo is breastfeeding), not all of it is so easily explained away. She watches a late-night cable show about male prostitutes, which includes brief but very explicit sexual content. When Tully sees her watching this, Marlo is understandably embarrassed. Tully tells her not to be self-conscious. In another scene, Tully initiates sex with Marlo’s husband, seemingly with Marlo’s consent (a significant plot twist later puts this scene in a completely different light. It’s still very weird and unnerving, but also not at all what it appears to be).
Much of this content, although not all of it, is understandable from the filmmaker’s perspective. In giving us the full picture of Marlo, the strained physical relationships with her husband, and the loneliness that results, adds another dimension to her character. This, too, is true to life in helping us come to grips with the impossible expectations placed on mothers. But I appreciate the motivation behind these story elements, I still question whether such content was helpful. This, and related dialogue, has the odd effect of identifying the cause of sexual tension (a lack of relationship and companionship) while also approaching sexuality itself rather casually.
This is, to be fair, a fairly minor part of the story. Although it warrants caution from a content perspective, the film’s many positive elements shine through when viewed holistically. Inspiring empathy with realistic and moving family dynamics, the film also takes a turn in the third act that adds more depth to the story. That element sets it apart from the standard drama fare, which combined with an immersive performance from Charlize Theron creates one of the more engaging films of the year.