Tully, the new Diablo Cody movie starring Charlize Theron, is hardly the first film to tackle the subject of parenting. In fact, it’s not even the first parenting movie of 2018. But Tully feels new and different. It’s a film that manages to set itself apart from the Cheaper by the Dozens and Daddy Day Cares of the world by avoiding cliches and focussing on the nitty-gritty of the parenting experience. Tully cleverly addresses the absurd expectations that come with raising a child in 2018 without turning its characters into victims or Brooklyn-ized cartoons. It’s not a sweet or kind movie and that’s what makes it work.
Tully tells the story of Marlo (Theron), a mother of three who is determined to be the best mom she can be even though she struggles to make it through the day without having a meltdown. Marlo’s husband, Drew (Ron Livingston), is a well-meaning but detached partner who happily lets his spouse take the parenting lead while he focuses on work and video games. Just as it seems like Marlo is at her breaking point, her brother Craig (Mark Duplass) presents her with a night nanny named Tully, who seems like exactly the savior Marlo wouldn’t admit she needed.
The film deals with a wide variety of parenting issues, including post-partum depression, the intersection of class and childcare expectations, and the struggle to maintain identity in the face of responsibility. But what makes Tully exceptional isn’t that it’s deep; it’s that it’s relentless. Like children, the movie doesn’t give anyone a break no matter how desperately it’s needed. There’s always a disaster waiting in the wings. It’s a frustrating and stressful viewing experience by design. One is not only made to watch Marlo but to feel her pain as she feeds the baby, drives the kids to school, changes diapers, cleans up, and fails to sleep. It’s tough and repetition drives it home even as it becomes clear that the movie isn’t showing a montage of years, but weeks.
Parenting takes its toll on Marlo at speed. And, yes, that sometimes happens even to determined parents.
What becomes clear is that no one in Marlo’s world is seeing her struggle — just the audience in the theater. As a new mom shouldering the bulk of the baby burden, Marlo struggles to get through the day while her husband and kids barely even register that anything is wrong. Even when someone occasionally acknowledges what she’s going through, it feels more like lip service. No one is interested. Marlo knows this. And she knows she can’t make anyone care and, in a sense, doesn’t feel empowered to have that conversation — not even with her husband (who, to be fair, is a bit of a schmuck).
Things devolve from there and the movie takes some unexpected turns. Without getting into spoilers, it’s worth saying that the film has more in common with Rosemary’s Baby than it does with Look Who’s Talking. That’s a sincere compliment of course, but also something to keep in mind when booking tickets. Tully might be the best and worst daddy and mommy date night movie ever made.
None of this is to say that Tully is an entirely cynical movie. In fact, it provides a clear and powerful message about the need for vulnerability and communication to be the best version of one’s self. Each of the characters is stuck on their own island of their own creation, to the point where the idea of asking for help seems like an impossible notion. Tully is, in a sense, about the need for community. But it’s not preachy. That’s not Diablo Cody’s style. And Marlo is no angel. Her fate is largely a result of her decisions. Her desire to make-believe ultimately turns around on her. Could she have seen that coming? Maybe, but she didn’t have time to look up.