In Juno, Diablo Cody's screenplay debut directed by Jason Reitman, 16-year-old Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page) is unexpectedly thrust into adulthood — first by an unexpected pregnancy, then by her decision to give the baby up for adoption. Their follow-up film, Young Adult, dealt with a woman in her 30s desperately clinging to her past, and terrified of what it means to really grow up and have children. The last instalment in what has unintentionally turned into a trilogy about motherhood is Tully, Cody and Reitman's third collaboration, about a mother of three in her 40s struggling to retain her own sense of identity in the throes of postpartum depression. The three characters are very different — but if you squint, they start to blur together, each a facet of the female experience (and not just because Charlize Theron stars in two of them), and universal in their specificity.
Tully approaches motherhood from the perspective of Marlo (Charlize Theron), whose pregnancy age 40 wasn't exactly planned, and wreaks havoc on the delicate balancing act she's perfected between her job as an HR rep, her marriage to Drew (Ron Livingston), and parenting their two other children. It doesn't help that they already have their hands full, kid-wise: 8-year-old Sarah (Lia Frankland) is at the age where she's starting to self-doubt, and 5-year-old Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica), labeled as "quirky" for an unnamed developmental disorder, is about to get kicked out of elementary school.
Amidst all this, Marlo's wealthy brother Craig (a superbly yuppy Mark Duplass) offers to gift her a night nurse for the first couple of months after the birth, to help ease the burden. At first, Marlo resists, giving a spiel about not trusting a stranger with her children. But after a seemingly endless montage of late-night diaper changes, feedings, breast-pumping and alarming sleep-deprivation, she finally gives in. Her saviour comes in the shape of 26-year-old Tully (Mackenzie Davis), a hipster Mary Poppins in a crop top with a magic touch for babies, and seemingly boundless energy to help bolster their mothers.
Tully's arrival means Marlo can finally start to see herself as a person again, rather than a feeding tube for her child. She can also get some much needed rest, which makes her alert and available to her two other children during the day. And as the two bond during 2 a.m. reruns of Gigolos, Marlo gets to revisit her own past hopes and dreams, and reconnect with the person she was at Tully's age.
Tully's strength lies in Cody's signature harmony between acerbic, wry humour, and stark, naked emotion. And though there are some truly funny — often absurd — moments, this film lies on the darker side of the spectrum. During the first half, the audience is bearing witness to a woman descending into her own personal hell, desperate for some kind of help, and lonely to the point of madness. It's to the film's credit, however, that it never demonises Drew, despite his nightly withdrawals to their bedroom to bury himself in a video game. He, like many fathers, just has no idea what his wife is going through, and doesn't really think to ask.
The fact that Cody, herself a mother of three, drew into her own personal experience for this screenplay lends an extra layer of credibility to an often glossed-over aspect of motherhood that we almost never get to see onscreen. Theron gained nearly 50 pounds for the role, which isn't as remarkable as it's been made out to be in the coverage of the film, but is important in the way it conveys the feeling of a new mother battling her own body in order to get through her day. The micro-aggressions she faces on a daily basis that start with her pregnancy — "you know, there's still traces of caffeine in decaf," a stranger informs her when she orders at a coffee shop — and continue when her daughter Mia is born, compound an already difficult situation. Frankly, it's enough to make one question why anyone would ever want to go through this in the first place — and I have to admit, as someone who isn't a mother, I left the cinema feeling more than a little terrified.
It would be a crime to spoil the ending, but keep in mind that though the journey might seem bleak, the film closes on a hopeful note — just enough to keep me from writing off kids forever.
Tully hits cinemas on May 4.
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