Film & Television

Soft-centred subversion: ‘Tully’

By Lauren Carroll Harris
Truth bombs are disarmed by the nuclear family in Diablo Cody’s latest film

It was true before the #MeToo moment: though cinema has offered countless visions of women as wives, girlfriends and mothers, very few films have tendered women’s own varied viewpoints on motherhood.

The same sexism pervades the media ecology that surrounds cinema – how many journalists called Diablo Cody an “ex-stripper” before they called her an Oscar-nominated screenwriter? Cody’s cinema career began with Juno, an indie darling project with an optimistic vision of teen motherhood in 2007 before she lashed out with a hellish vision of girlhood in 2009’s Jennifer’s Body. Her comedy-drama Young Adult (directed by Jason Reitman and with Charlize Theron in 2011) was deeply sarcastic toward the very idea of family. Cody’s new film, Tully, dilutes the caustic tone to offer a more tender – conservative, even – reconciliation of women’s familial sacrifices.

Also helmed by Reitman, Tully stars Theron as a deeply unhappy mother who bonds with her much younger, lifesaving nanny. We first meet Theron’s Marlo at the late stages of an unplanned pregnancy – her third – in her 40s. She is already exhausted. Her decidedly uncute children are acting out, her smallest choices as a pregnant woman are constantly judged. And when her baby finally arrives (after a failed epidural, in a labour scene captured with real frankness and zero sentimentality), there’s little bonding, just more fatigue.

Marlo isn’t only a parent (the film is not Mother! but Motherhood!), but the role has devoured her life. Only two-thirds in do we learn that she is an English Lit graduate who has sunk into a HR role at a protein bar company. Cody’s contrivances aren’t always a neat fit with this mundane domestic space, but in her second outing as a Diablo woman, Theron lets the barbed, witty dialogue flow deftly. The LOLs are perverse, but the real narrative is triggered with the arrival of a night nanny, paid for by Marlo’s affluent brother (Mark Duplass), to shoulder the burden of the baby’s after-dark cries. Marlo has her Scriptwriting 101-mandated apprehensions: why would she let a “stranger” bond with her newborn every night while she sleeps? But fresh depths of sleep deprivation make her pragmatic.

Played by Mackenzie Davis with girlish indie zeal, Tully breezes in like a kind of manic pixie dream mother, but created from a woman’s perspective (“I’m here to take care of you”). She’s empathetic and funny and in multiple relationships; she has boatloads of energy and the body of someone who’s had “zero children”, as Marlo backhandedly compliments. She’s sexy and relatable.

Tully and Marlo become co-conspirators, and with this newfound domestic and emotional support, Marlo becomes more like the mother she dreamed she could be: someone who brings cupcakes to school, who gladly sings bad karaoke at children’s birthday parties, who wears just the right touch of mom-appropriate make-up. Backlit, these scenes play like a self-satirising montage of a holiday-themed Julia Roberts film. Some more sinister downfall must surely await.

One critic has already called Cody and Reitman’s second collaboration a searing vision of postnatal depression. But this misses something crucial: the strength of the film’s perception is that it doesn’t treat Marlo’s predicament diagnostically. To me, Marlow’s suffering isn’t clinical: she used to earn her own money (doing, albeit, less interesting things than her intellect might allow) and have her own aspirations; now she’s a conduit for breastmilk and small, solipsistic humans.

But what begins as stark storytelling becomes soft. Dan Savage, who could himself be a minor Cody character on account of his snappy sex advice, likes to say that there’s no settling down without a little settling for, but Marlo’s partner Drew (Ron Livingston) pushes that truism to swampy, depressing extremes. Cody’s script deliberately pushes into Marlo and Drew’s entirely different experiences of parenthood. Drew (a peripheral character at best) comes home from work, kisses the kids on the forehead, and eventually retires, headphone-clad, to the marital bed for a night of gaming. There’s truth to his nice-guy puppy loyalty, but in tracing a rather safe, and oddly sad, trajectory toward reaffirming Drew and Marlo’s love, Cody and Reitman abandon the motherhood tenet established in the film’s first depressive, pre-Tully act. Instead of following an ultimately conventional romance arc, a more daring film might have asserted Marlo’s bond with her children rather than the one she reaffirms with her sweet but dopey husband.

Cody’s last motherhood screenplay, the Jonathan Demme-directed Ricki and the Flash, balanced these competing imperatives by embracing a stubborn woman, Meryl Streep, whose decision to prioritise her artistic passions above childrearing haunts her later in life. Cody always finds small subversive ways to needle popular cinema. In Ricki and the Flash, a straight couple’s wedding was staffed by a lesbian-owned catering company, while in Tully, Marlo’s long-lost almost-love is a beautiful boyish woman with whom she once roomed in Brooklyn. Studiously frumpy and monochromatic, the production design drops more slyly funny details of US middle-class consumerism, like a maxi-pack of Dr Bronner liquid hand soap at the kitchen sink. Marlo may serve her kids frozen pizza, but you can bet she gets it from Whole Foods Market, gluten-free.

Though many American journalists have praised Tully’s insistence on the ugly side of motherhood, the real problem – which ultimately deserts Marlo’s extra-domestic aspirations and the film’s subversive beginning – is that it lacks the conviction, and the coherence of tone, to follow through on the gloom of its protagonist’s dashed ambitions. More sweet than bitter, the film’s real parenting mantra comes from Tully herself, who tells crisis-stricken Marlo that her life’s paralysing dullness is the very source of the children’s emotional stability.

That soft, consoling centre may well be what some viewers find reassuring – that the wall of #MomLife exhaustion will subside, and it will all be worthwhile. But this message is also the source of the film’s conservatism. For all the truth bombs Cody hurls about motherhood, Tully doubles down and invests fully in the nuclear family unit as both the provenance and salve of its heroine’s misery. Marlo is on the track – the track of wifehood, of career compromise, of relentless domesticity and everything that goes with it – and her respite is her absorption into hardcore normalcy. What other configurations exist for family, for companionship, for togetherness, for raising children, for community, for bunkering down with others against the loneliness of a society in freefall? Precluded by Cody and Reitman’s desire for all dramatic conflict to be resolved, they’re not imagined here.

Other stories about womanhood, by women, I suspect, are yet to be told. After all, the post-Weinstein era has just begun. The finest moments of Tully play like an insight to this female future of storytelling. A shot of Marlo, staring into the abyss like a maternal robot, slumped on a kitchen chair with milk pumps clamped over her breasts, is honestly chilling. In that shot, the film refuses to look away from its protagonist’s feeling of entrapment during late pregnancy and early motherhood. Cody and Reitman – and Theron’s – film remains fascinating for how it resonates with what you bring – your own dread or yearning or experiences related to parenthood – to a contradictory and sometimes confronting theme. And at its bravest, it makes you sit with your own emotional dissatisfaction.

Lauren Carroll Harris

Lauren Carroll Harris is a writer and the television critic for Radio National’s The Screen Show.

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