The following features spoilers to Tully.
Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody’s latest collaboration Tully is a funny movie about a woman struggling with life after her third pregnancy who hires a night nanny for relief. Throughout the film, Marlo (Charlize Theron) and Tully (Mackenzie Davis) joke about the nature of their relationship. Marlo notes that she doesn’t want to end up like one of those Lifetime movies where the woman ends up using a cane due to her terrible babysitter experiences. Tully playfully admits to Marlo that she was worried she’d end up killing her. Marlo jabs back: “I thought about it a few times.”
What reads as a cute joke playing on the old horror film tropes of murderous mothers and bad babysitters changes upon the film’s third act reveal: Marlo has been exhausting herself during dissociative episodes where she imagines her younger self, complete with her maiden name Tully, as the night nanny. “I thought about it a few times” goes from a cute joke into an admittance of suicidal thoughts. Watching Tully a second time, I couldn’t help but realize just how much Cody had coded what seemed like a story about parenthood into a story about living with depression and the guilt of surviving and being a disappointment.
Mental illness in general has factored into Cody’s writing often, from The United States of Tara to Ricki and the Flash. The latter was especially effective, in great part because Jonathan Demme and Diablo Cody are both individuals who prioritize how flawed their characters are. They both have a knack for injecting the most ridiculous or villainous characters with a sense of humanity, making them someone to understand, if not relate to.
In the real world, the characters of Cody’s films are the kind of women that aren’t taken seriously: a teen girl who got knocked up; a housewife coping with dissociative identity disorder; a ghost writer who wants her married ex-boyfriend back; an older woman who left her family to pursue her rock career; a young woman who attempted suicide after being cheated on by her husband. These are the people so often treated as irrational that people judge for indulging in frivolity or indulgent behavior. They’re the ones that are easy to criticize because you know nothing about how or why they’re alive.
Tully argues that the story of a struggling mother is important. More than that, it explores how overwheleming simply existing can be, and how that’s doubled down when you have to worry about the existence of a baby, a literal extension of you. Marlo is a woman who has settled into life and all its repetitions, and knows that she has these three extensions of herself, but it’s something that she feels isn’t enough. She laments having no big dreams or aspirations and simply ending up a mother of three, in a loving but monotone marriage to a decent man, with nothing to look forward to except the next day of the same thing.
But her younger self is there to remind her that this isn’t necessarily true. For a young queer woman, stability becomes a dream. When Marlo describes her husband as the bench on the merry-go-round instead of the horse, it’s not meant to be an insult, it’s a comfort. It’s the dream of certainty that you’ll have a life instead of a tragedy. This isn’t the life that everyone longs for–some people are more comfortable floating from space to space like George Clooney does at the start of Up In the Air–but it’s something a number of people, queer and not, can associate with. It also reinforces the idea that with growth comes the ability to instill change; by being a reliable safe home to be raised in, she becomes what she never had.
But with the comfort of stability comes the insecurity of your surroundings. What if you’re not good at being a parent? What if your child has needs you don’t understand and can’t fulfill? What if coming from a broken home has made it so that your own home can never be what you want? What if the world is telling you that you’re not doing enough? What if you’ve been conditioned to think that you’re a failure if you can’t be a mother, a wife, and a worker all at once? It’s all of these things that act as a trigger for Marlo’s postpartum psychosis.
Some have argued that the reveal of Marlo’s hallucination diminishes both the performances by Theron and Davis, as well as every bit of the script that came before it. This ignores the way that Cody takes great care in peppering hints to the nature of Marlo’s mental health throughout. As a director who keenly understands how to create a mood (and drawing out performances) based around a sense of displacement, of not quite being able to settle into the life you’ve created for yourself, Jason Reitman is perfect for telling Marlo’s story.
His collaborations, from his work with Cody to his episodes of Hulu’s Casual, depict this well. The characters he chooses to explore, including Marlo, are often at this odd crossroad between being able to change as a person and remaining exactly the same, stuck in that discomfort. They’re forced to ask the question: does being a better person mean becoming someone else or can I learn to live with these things I consider flaws?
It’s something that Tully herself proposes to Marlo during a late night conversation: “If a boat has all of its parts replaced over its lifetime, is it still the same boat as when it started?” In order to fix ourselves, in order to stay alive, we lose parts of ourselves. It’s not just the dead cells or the memories we forget, it’s the way we let go of our younger selves that allows us to move forward. They’re still there, but we need to accept that we aren’t the same person we were before.
As much as Marlo and Tully are one in the same, the film makes a point that they are not the same person. Marlo isn’t Tully. At least, she isn’t anymore. She’s not the girl juggling relationships with people, living in a loft with an artist girlfriend, listening to Cyndi Lauper records, and not really dealing with any of the obligations of life. She’s a mother. She’s a wife. She’s a woman.
Cody and Reitman, film after film, have managed to show that we’re only human, and being human–or more importantly being alive–comes with a lot of baggage and endless opportunity for change. This is true no matter who you are. In its final moments, Tully reminds us that staying alive long enough to struggle with those changes is a thing of beauty.
Directed by Jason Reitman; written by Diablo Cody; starring Charlize Theron, Mackenzie Davis, Ron Livingston, and Mark Duplass; 95 minutes.
Tully is now playing everywhere.