One facet of motherhood women rarely discuss is all the subtle, yet totally perceivable slights they are forced to internalize daily: a judgmental look from a stranger here; a weaponized word of concern directed at you and your screaming child there; a partners’ displeasure with a lackluster dinner. Sometimes it’s not even subtle. News cycles have practically canonized the Duchess of Cambridge for delivering her third child in several hours like it was NBD, casually strolling out of the hospital’s private wing in a designer dress, full makeup, perfect blowout and 3 inch heels. Gwyneth Paltrow practically jump-started her GOOP brand on the “I’m doing mom-life better than you” motto. And US Weekly built their tabloid on making new moms feel bad about their post-baby bodies, splashing headlines about the latest celeb to have lost her baby weight in excessively fast time. Let’s face facts: our society reinforces the unhealthy, unreasonable expectations placed on moms.
Can greater comfort be gained knowing that Duchess Kate probably feels a similar pressure to be perfect? Or that Gwyneth also admitted to not feeling so GOOP-y after the birth of her second child? Or that the former US Weekly editor who put so much bad into the world experienced a moment of well-deserved karmic schadenfreude? Perhaps. Moreso, it’s the knowledge that no one is alone in their struggle – and that’s where director Jason Reitman’s non-picture-perfect portrait of motherhood, TULLY, comes in. Written by Diablo Cody, this shows momdom warts and all, acting as an empathetic lifeline for those in desperate need. It shouts “We see you!” It’s real and raw. It’s bruising and bleak. It’s honest to fault. All this makes it entirely wonderful as it’s an unapologetic, unwavering and unvarnished look at motherhood.
They say that your third child is the easiest. That’s baloney, if you ask Marlo (Charlize Theron). Even before the birth of her third, she’s got her work cut out for her as the firstborn, Sarah (Lia Frankland), is maturing fast and her second child, Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica), is encountering disruptive developmental issues. Her husband (Ron Livingston) isn’t much help either as he’s caught in a routine, focused on his videogames rather than couples communication. Things change, however, once her insufferably wealthy/ concerned brother Craig (Mark Duplass) steps in, gifting her with a reprieve from suffering – night nanny Tully (Mackenzie Davis). Though Marlo is reticent at first, she acquiesces under extreme duress. Color, light and good sense of being begins to creep back into her life – as does an unexpected surprise.
Cody and Reitman, who previously collaborated on the sublime YOUNG ADULT, bring ingenuity to this universally resounding tale, lensing a sort of askew, unique take on Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey.” Themes of identity – how women view themselves in a greater societal context as parents and individuals – swirl around the picture. This is not exclusive to parents either; it will assuredly be identifiable and accessible to everyone with a pulse. The emotional push-pull feels palpable. Marlo’s varied feelings radiate throughout – desperation, loneliness, struggle, emptiness and, blessedly, hope and warmth. That’s not to say it’s all dour. The dynamic duo infuse the film with a lot of resonant and at times acerbic humor. And get ready to hear the word “quirky” be weaponized. That said, be forewarned that there’s one questionable scene that some may bristle at in the moment. Hang in there, though, as that onion’s layers haven’t been unpeeled yet. The pieces of the puzzle all fit together by film’s end.
From a technical standpoint as well, this dramedy is remarkable. Reitman, along with editor Stefan Grube, utilize a blunt, choppy editing technique left perfectly unpolished to represent the protagonist’s mindset. This augments the narrative, specifically in what I call the “birth control montage,” that acts as a highlight reel of Marlo’s best-worst moments in her daily struggle. Frequent collaborator cinematographer Eric Steelberg (UP IN THE AIR, LABOR DAY, YOUNG ADULT) plays around with the tonal qualities of Marlo’s world, which oscillates from cool and warm tones depending on her POV. Music plays an important part – not just sonically setting up the scenes through Rob Simonsen’s score, but also through the soundtrack. The jump cuts in Cyndi Lauper’s “She’s So Unusual” album are a brilliant way to convey time passage, tracking how long it takes Marlo and Tully to schlep to the city from suburbia.
While we’ve certainly seen films that show parenthood as the true gift that it is, we rarely see the other side of that coin – the intimacy of parental strife. It’s time we take the stigma out of this aspect of humanity. Basically, someone needs to show TULLY to Kate Middleton. Not that she’d ever be allowed to express her intimate thoughts, or unadulterated gratitude for its existence. No, that will come from seeing one tear roll gently down her freshly micro-dermabrasioned cheek, covered in blush that was applied by a professional makeup artist.
TULLY opens on May 4.