What does modern motherhood look like? The spectrum of cinematic depictions of what it means to be a mother is seemingly endless, ranging from lighthearted, surface-level portrayals of mothers in “Freaky Friday” and “Mean Girls” to far darker depictions of mothers acting ‘un-motherly’ in “Carrie” and “Ordinary People.” Despite the variation in genre, what all these films have in common is that their portrayals of motherhood are over-exaggerated and unrealistic. When it comes to interpreting motherhood, the film world turns to using a phony lens rather than showing the grittier and occasionally less-pleasant truth of the stresses and anxieties that mothers actually experience. Void of unnecessary fluff and over-dramatization, Jason Reitman’s film “Tully” offers audiences a fresh and sobering glimpse into the rarely revealed side of modern-day motherhood and its overshadowed intersection with mental health, challenging the unfair standards that expect constant stability and overall perfection from mothers.
Marlo (Charlize Theron, “Mad Max: Fury Road”), a mother of two elementary-aged kids and a newborn baby, is far beyond her breaking point. Life has become a merry-go-round, but instead of spinning around and around among colorful animals and smiling faces, Marlo is rotating through the same numbing routine that mainly consists of changing diapers, breastfeeding and prepping microwave dinners. In a state of perpetual sleeplessness and with minimal aid from her loving yet ridiculously unhelpful husband Drew, (Ron Livingston, “The Conjuring”) Marlo is running on empty, heading toward a downward mental spiral. However, a beacon of light shines down when, eager to revive his sister’s spirits, Marlo’s wealthy brother Craig (Mark Duplass, “Safety Not Guaranteed”) offers an unusual baby-shower gift: A night nurse.
Desperate for a sliver of R&R, Marlo takes her brother up on his offer, quickly finding herself face-to-face with the youthful, enviable and illustrious Tully (Mackenzie Davis, “Blade Runner 2049”). Despite Tully’s initial purpose of simply caring for the baby through the night, her late-night house calls gradually evolve into gossip-filled evenings with Marlo. As the friendship between the two women grows, their bizarre, almost sister-like chemistry strengthens and, invigorated by Tully’s free-spirit and zest, Marlo slowly emerges from her state of emotional blankness and depression.
Through her character’s feelings of self-doubt, numbness and inner and outer exhaustion, Theron brilliantly delivers the powerful message that motherhood is multifaceted. While, in part, it is unconditional love, joy and relentless devotion, it can also lead to a loss of identity and emotional deterioration. Marlo’s unsweetened and uncensored moments as a mother create the tone of realness that persists throughout the movie.
Arguably most commendable about “Tully” is its boldness in tackling the theme of mental health, a topic seldom explored in adult characters. Throughout the film, as audience members, it is clear that Marlo is experiencing some form of postpartum depression and severe, debilitating insomnia. Yet, the other characters in the film, Marlo’s husband included, are oblivious to her struggles. This oblivion speaks more broadly to the manner in which, until fairly recently, mental health, especially postpartum depression, was often unacknowledged as legitimate or relevant by society. Still today there exists a skewed and ancient notion that mental health can be boxed up and designated to fit a specific type of person, which simply is not true. Through the presentation of Marlo, a thirty-something mother and a character that viewers would not expect to be suffering from depression, “Tully” overturns the false assumptions that there is a mold of any sort for what mental health ‘should’ look like.
More than anything else, “Tully” is a film that aims to enlighten. Reitman re-evaluates the notion of motherhood from a more humanistic perspective, tearing down the implicit and outdated stereotypical standards that expect expert childcare, relentless positivity and endless smiles from mothers. With Mother’s Day fast approaching, “Tully” takes an unconventional route, exposing the reality of motherhood’s tribulations, honoring all mothers by challenging the illusion of ‘the perfect mother’ and beautifully shattering the misconception that there is a way that mothers are ‘supposed’ to be.