The challenge almost all parents face these days is trying to be a good parent while retaining the parts of you that make you you, the parts that your friends know and like, and most importantly the parts that you enjoy. How can you find the strength, stamina, and the courage you need to be best you can be without collapsing from exhaustion first? You do so, Tully answers, by being kind to yourself and those around you.
Directed by Jason Reitman and written by the ever-amazing Diablo Cody, Tully is wonderfully acted by the three principles, with Charlize Theron and Mackenzie Davis exhibiting a bond that’s so strong, it would surely doom the film without it. Tully concerns Marlo (Theron) and her struggle to do everything a mother of two, later three, children has to do in order to keep the kids and everybody else in line, educated, and happy. Her husband Drew (Ron Livingston) tries but often misses the bigger picture. Her son Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica) is euphemistically described as “quirky” by his school, much to Marlo’s chagrin. Her daughter Sarah (Lia Frankland) is by all accounts seemingly normal, but as every parent knows even normal isn’t easy. On top of this Marlo is pregnant and about a month away from giving birth. She works hard to listen to her kids, to make them feel special, and to give them a good foundation before they go off into the world, but she’s exhausted.
Jonah needs special care, potentially displaying signs of Asperger’s syndrome he’d be a challenge for almost any parent, and Marlo is one to give her family all that she has to offer. There’s a lovingly touching scene at the beginning where we see her brushing his skin to calm him before bed. She works hard at soothing him and she even allows him the comfort of soothing himself.
Jonah sits down. He casually grabs his crotch and holds on.
Marlo: Do you need to go to the bathroom?
Jonah continues holding himself.
Marlo: Just being your own best friend, huh?
Jonah nods blithely.
But the private school recommends she hire a one-on-one tutor to help him in the classroom. She has the love, but it’s clearly not enough.
Marlo and her husband have drifted farther apart than they ever anticipated, not because of lack of love, but because of their responsibilities. He works with the kids on their homework, helps make their lunch, and is generally very supportive of Marlo, but again, it’s not enough.
The first time we see Marlo radiate is when she briefly runs into her best friend from college at a coffee shop. Aside from that brief bit, she’s loving, harried, frazzled and just plain tired. Even her house looks tired with brown and yellow walls and cabinets that haven’t been updated since the 1970s.
When her brother, Craig, a software multi-millionaire, invites her and Drew for dinner, we see the stark contrast between what loving parents with the means to provide for their children can do and people like Marlo and Craig (Mark Duplass), who barely seem to be scraping by.
The kids immediately go off with their cousins and their nanny to sing karaoke, while Marlo and her sister-in-law, Elyse, compare parenting notes. Craig and Elyse (Elaine Tan) have it all put together, a nanny for their kids, a housekeeper for the house, and a resort-style Tahitian bar for them. But unlike the common trope where there’s competition inherent between siblings who’ve attained a vastly disparate economic status, we sense no competitiveness from her brother’s family. They seem like good and loving people, even if they can be a bit on the shallow side.
Elyse: The ninth month is tough, I could barely make it to the gym.
Then Craig springs a surprise on his sister. He wants to give her a night nanny, who can do all the chores that need to be done at night while Marlo sleeps. She’ll wake her up when it’s time for nursing and Marlo will be better rested so she can take care of her family.
Craig: And I’m telling you-- for the sake of your kids-- get over yourself and call her. This is the number. Make whatever arrangements you need, for however long you want. She’ll bill me; we already worked it out.
He and Elyse swear their night nanny was a godsend, but Marlo strongly resists his offer. It’s just not in her nature to ask for or accept help. After she gives birth she even refuses the nurse’s offer to take her baby back to the nursery.
Marlo: No. She needs me. I’m the only one who can do it.
Marlo spends much of the first act wondering how she got where she is. Is she happy? Should she continue on this road? Does she even have a choice? How in the hell can she make things better for her family and herself? Are those two things mutually exclusive?
Meanwhile, Drew is tired from work and from doing what he thinks is his part in taking care of the kids. While Marlo hasn’t found any peace, Drew has found his peace in the form of fighting intense video game battles right before bed. As he fights into the night, she falls asleep in seconds. He’s left her behind and doesn’t even realize it.
As evidenced by her willingness to sit and watch the Showtime reality series Gigolos, Marlo has basically given up. So without knowing what else she can do, she makes the call. Tully (Davis) appears and is everything Marlo could expect and more. She’s kind, considerate. She listens. What’s more, she anticipates Marlo’s needs. The first night she cleans the house and bakes cupcakes for the kids’ school. Marlo is amazed. Tully is indeed a godsend. Tully not only does the work that Marlo is too exhausted to do, but she encourages Marlo to take time for herself.
Tully: You can’t be a good mother if you don’t practice self-care.
Tully’s presence inspires Marlo and frees her to do the things she loves to do. She’s happy. She makes pancakes and rolls from scratch. She has the energy for her kids and her husband. And after a time when Tully says she has to leave, Marlo freaks out, steals a bike, and rides to her old place to wake her college roommate and gaze upon her old, carefree life. But then the pull of motherhood wears on her and she realizes she misses her infant daughter. They go to a bar bathroom so Marlo can pump and then head home in the car after many drinks.
Marlo: What am I going to do without you?
Tully: You’re going to take care of yourself. You’re going to shower every day, nourish and exercise your body, and maybe even send yourself roses once in a while. Promise me you will.
And then they crash.
Marlo wakes up with Drew over her and we learn that there never was a Tully, or more precisely we learn that Tully was her maiden name and the nanny was really Marlo’s younger self talking to and helping to take care of her older self.
Drew: I’m sorry I let this happen to you.
Marlo: You didn’t do anything.
Drew starts crying.
Drew: I know. That’s the problem. I didn’t know what was happening at night! I was just overwhelmed, between the baby, and work, and it seemed like you were doing great.
Marlo: I was doing great. smiling Wasn’t I great?
Drew: Fuck that. I don’t need you to be great. I just need you to be you. We love you so much. I’m sorry if you want to run away. I do too. But I don’t, because I love us.
Marlo: I love us too.
It took Marlo revisiting her younger self in the form of a mental illness and along with a car crash to get the two of them to realize what they have and how to take care of it, but in the end, they do. Drew is there right by Marlo’s side washing the dishes as they share a pair of headphones.
So what first seems like a film about a night nanny helping a mother rediscover her energy for herself and her family, becomes a film about the need to be your own best friend and do the things you love to do, while asking the people around you for help when you need it. It’s also a film about waking up if you’re in Drew’s shoes and asking your partner what she or he needs, and being ready to fulfill it. Nearly everyone is caught up in their own drama, like Drew, who has a big year at work and feels like he is helping with the kids, but clearly, it’s not enough.
It’s also about realizing when you’ve attained your dream and taking the wheat with the chaff and savoring the wheat.
Marlo: ... Your twenties are great. But then your thirties come around the corner like a garbage truck at 5 a.m. Yeah. You gotta think long-term. What are you going to do when that cute little ass drops and your feet grow half a size with each pregnancy, and the whole “free spirit” thing stops being charming and starts looking ugly?
Tully: I’m not afraid of the future.
Marlo: You should be. I’m it.
Tully: What’s wrong with that? You know what your problem is? You’re convinced you’re a failure, but you actually made your biggest dream come true.
Tully: I know how bad your childhood was. So now you’re giving your kids what you never had. That sameness you despise? That’s your gift to them. Waking up every day, doing the same things for them over and over even though it grinds you down. Yes, you are boring. Your marriage is boring, your house is boring, and that’s incredible. That’s the big dream you had when you were young, to grow up and be dull and constant and raise your kids in that circle of safety. You made it happen, Marlo. You are a steady and elegant mother. Day after day. Night after night.
Marlo: whispering But I don’t feel safe. I feel scared.
Tully: That’s what I’m here for. To keep you safe, so you can doing your job. We can’t afford to lose you.
There has been some criticism by some mothers who have experience with or deep familiarity with postpartum depression or psychosis who say that the film denies Marlo true treatment for what clearly is a very dangerous disorder. But I applaud Cody’s response to her critics, as quoted by The New York Times, “The movie is actually about her lack of treatment,” Ms. Cody said.
“Sometimes what you're desperate is for someone to say: ‘Hey, I actually see what’s going on here. This is serious, we need to deal with it and there’s a name for it,’” Ms. Cody said. “And Marlo doesn’t get that comfort in this film. Because the film is meant to be uncomfortable.”
Tully doesn’t come with easy answers. Marlo doesn’t just wake up and realize that Tully was herself on her own, the solution isn’t easy to come by and yes, it’s not a clinical solution, but given that people have to have lots of money to get diagnoses and treatment for these kinds of things, it is the one solution that all of us can have regardless of the means we have at our disposal.
I can imagine after the credits roll there will be more struggles as the kids get older and present Marlo and Drew with new challenges. But as the final scene suggests, a family that loves each other listens to each other and is there for each other has a much greater chance of staying happy.
Marlo has just begun brushing Jonah when he says, “Mom, is this real?”
Marlo: What do you mean?
Jonah: Does it work? We do it every night but I’m not sure what it’s supposed to do.
Marlo: Well, honestly, I don’t know. Do you like when we do it?
Jonah: I like being by you.
Marlo: I like being by you too.
Jonah: And it feels nice, I guess.
Marlo: Well, maybe that’s all that matters.
Jonah: But we can just be together. We don’t have to do the brush. I kind of don’t think it’s real. Marlo: Okay. If you don’t think we need it, then I guess we’ll stop.
She puts the brush down and rests her chin in her hands. Jonah suddenly leans forward and puts his arms around her.
Jonah: I love you.
Marlo: I love you too.