'Tully,' Parenthood, and Allowing Ourselves to Ask for Care

Commentary
By Abby Olcese 5-04-2018

In the opening Tully, director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody’s exceptional new film, pregnant mom Marlo (Charlize Theron) performs sensory brush therapy on her young son, Jonah. There’s calming music playing the background, and a Madonna-esque light behind Marlo and Jonah in this gentle, intimate moment.

In another scene a few minutes later, Jonah throws a screaming fit as Marlo tries to find a parking spot outside her kids’ school, upsetting older daughter Sarah. The inside of the car is all panic and noise, the sound design crescendoing in a cacophony of raised voices. Reitman suddenly cuts to the outside of the car. It’s silent. In the parking lot, no one can hear you scream.

Tully is a movie all about motherhood — its beauty, its anguish, its pressure, and the sacrifices adults make when they become parents. It’s also a movie about the importance of self-care and the deep psychological and spiritual need to feel cared for, especially in a life role that takes every ounce of our attention and energy.

At the start of the movie, Marlo has two kids and another one on the way. Her husband Drew (Ron Livingston) is loving, but oblivious to his wife’s exhaustion and needs. As a baby gift, Marlo’s wealthy, bourgeois brother Craig (Mark Duplass) offers to pay for a night nanny, who can watch the new baby while Marlo rests. After the baby’s birth, and a series of sleepless nights, Marlo acquiesces. The nanny, Tully (Mackenzie Davis), is a free-spirited young woman with seemingly boundless energy. Not only does Tully take care of the baby, she cleans the house and makes cupcakes. She also makes a deep impression on Marlo, who finds herself drawn to Tully, and rejuvenated by her sensitivity and care.

Cody’s script is full of moments of exasperated honesty as well as humor, and Theron does a masterful job of delivering those lines with harried exhaustion, through a public mask of someone who has it all together. When the mask falls, we see Marlo as the impatient, put-upon person she is, someone who feels constantly judged for not being a good enough mother, and never supported in the ways she needs. When the quirky, energetic Tully finally appears, telling Marlo “I’m here to take care of you,” it’s like a wave of relief washes over not only Marlo, but the whole film.

Self-care isn’t just a buzzword — it’s also a spiritual practice, including in the Bible. Jesus did it frequently, retreating to quiet places for prayer and reflection, and calling for his followers to seek the relief they needed in a relationship with him. Practically, however, having the time and space to address our own needs often requires help and resources that aren’t always available.

Tully addresses this, too, showing how much easier it is for Craig and his wife to care for themselves and their kids with the help of a full-time nanny, a huge house, and high-quality food. For Drew, It takes a near disaster to understand how much help Marlo needs from him, in a moment that calls for overworked parents to be vocal about their needs, but also for those around them to be a little more intuitive and considerate.

Tully is a real, funny, unflinching look at the demands of parenthood. It shows the pressures of outside judgment, and constant frustration, as well as the small moments of beauty and victory when everything works, and we’re buoyed by the kindness and care of others. It also shows what happens in the absence of that care, or our unwillingness to recognize how much we need it. Tully works as an offbeat ode to motherhood, but also as a reminder of the reassurance we all need — from others, and from ourselves — on a daily basis.

Abby Olcese is a freelance film critic and writer based in Kansas. You can find her on Twitter @indieabby88.

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