The viewer’s first sight of Marlo (Charlize Theron) in Tully, the third collaboration between director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody, is of her heavily pregnant stomach as she walks through her house to tend to her son. The opening shot, together with the film’s premise – Marlo is overwhelmed by the demands of an unplanned newborn, in addition to two prior children and persuaded by her brother to hire a night nanny – demonstrates the thematic centrality of motherhood and domestic labour. Initially, this is indeed the case, but Tully is a conceptual hodge-podge of a film: a strong opening act is succeeded by a surreal, thematically confused story about Marlo’s relationship with her night-nanny, before everything is upended by a twisty but unsatisfactory conclusion which reveals that Tully has been “about” something else altogether. United only by a strong central performance from Charlize Theron, we are left with a jumble of messages and ideas which don’t ultimately cohere.
Diablo Cody is known for her biting dialogue, particularly her Oscar-winning script for Juno. But while her writing for Tully contains snappy and insightful elements, it’s frequently unsubtle in its attempts to convey meaningful messages. Take the scene in which Marlo takes her top off to reveal a flabby stomach and stretchmarks, whereupon her daughter immediately asks “Mom, what’s wrong with your body?” Aha! A comment on how society pathologises women’s bodies, perhaps? The point is clunkily delivered. Earlier, the script is perhaps too on-the-nose in its jabs at the rich, represented here by Marlo’s brother and sister-in-law. Their dog, for instance, is named “Prosecco”, and their specially prepared meal for the children includes truffles. The gags also fall a little flat because, while Marlo and her family lack her sibling’s financial resources and social status, they nonetheless live in a large and picturesque house. Cody is trying to satirise those she envisions as wealthy, not realising that her vision of “getting by” might be an ordinary viewer’s “very comfortably well-off indeed”.
Despite this, the film undoubtedly makes the trials of motherhood – even for the comfortably well-off – desperately vivid. A knot of tension formed in my own stomach as Marlo was made late for an appointment by her son’s meltdown in the car. The sheer messiness of raising young children is conveyed with spilled bags of pumped breast-milk and knocked-over cups of juice; motherhood is, as much as anything, a sticky experience, and Tully doesn’t shy away from that. Theron’s performance painfully depicts the red-eyed exhaustion caused not just by sleep-deprivation, but the unrelenting repetitiveness of each day’s demands and the requirement to hide it all with a perky smile. We are also pointed towards the inequity of domestic labour. Marlo’s husband Drew (Ron Livingston) is a good man, but leaves the daily and nightly grind of childcare for his wife to deal with, brushing off the notion that he might share in night-time duties with the excuse that he cannot breastfeed.
This exploration of messy motherhood is largely confined to the film’s opening act: once Marlo caves and hires the night nanny, there is an abrupt shift of gear and Tully loses its thematic cohesion. The film begins to centre on the relationship between Marlo and Tully (Mackenzie Davis), the twenty-something nanny who bursts in like a swearier Mary Poppins; bringing relief not just by letting Marlo get some sleep, but also by cleaning the house and baking cupcakes overnight. Also like Mary Poppins, she cares for more than the baby: she wants to fix the family’s problems, right up to the lack of sex between Marlo and Drew (alright, maybe Mary Poppins never went that far). Tully makes herself at home with Marlo: seemingly lacking boundaries, she’s totally uninhibited in what she says and does. She’s “weird”, as Marlo puts it to her husband – and yet Marlo is accepting of the weirdness, even embracing it. She doesn’t notice her connection to Tully becoming profoundly intimate and strange. There are hints that all is not as it seems: Tully says that she’s older than she looks, juxtaposed with Marlo’s daughter telling her about a doll in the Monster High series – a vampire over a thousand years old; Tully makes cryptic references about her daily life and is, of course, seen only at night; Marlo has recurring dreams about mermaids. Aside from these gestures towards a mystery to be resolved, Tully’s behaviour becomes increasingly unprofessional – perhaps, we wonder, dangerously so.
Marlo and Tully’s relationship recalls the central dynamic in Clouds of Sils Maria. In that film Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart star as a female employer/employee pair with a comparable age gap, also crossing boundaries: shifting between friendship, maternalism and even eroticism. Both films seek to explore the complexities of a relationship between two women that isn’t reducible to friendship, romance or a familial relationship. But, as with Clouds of Sils Maria, Tully resolves the relationship in a profoundly unsatisfying way. In Clouds, Stewart simply vanishes up a mountain, the bond between her and Binoche left hanging. The mystery is left unexplained.
I won’t reveal what happens in Tully. Suffice it to say that the ending, while it resolves the mystery, undermines almost all of what has gone before. Instead of working through the issues raised – motherhood, women’s relationships, autism, domestic labour, mental illness – or even acknowledging their necessary lack of resolution, Cody’s script wraps everything up in a neat bow which would unravel with the gentlest tug. The film’s banal climax reveals another key central theme, forcing a wholly new perspective on earlier conversations and events. We are barely given the chance to consider its implications and message, however, before a briskly sentimental conclusion.
Tully fails to resolve conceptual problems adequately and it fails to fulfill its promise of sheer weirdness. But even as I was disappointed and irritated by the film’s resolution, my mind spun with its thematic implications. It’s a rich film, and it would be easy to write much more about its invocation of the “Ship of Theseus” paradox, or to probe the significance of the mermaid imagery which recurs throughout. Furthermore, it centres womanhood and motherhood in a way which is sadly too rare in mainstream films. It fails, but in a more interesting way than many films succeed.