If you are to believe the usual Hollywood depictions of motherhood, it is either a Xanadu-esque idyll of airbrushed, rose-tinted contentment where children smile and fulfillment comes from bake sales and laughter-filled family get-togethers, or, and this is a favourite of the indie crowd, a barren wasteland of suburban despair where all hope and sense of self is surrendered the moment you darken the doors of home with a newborn.
Films occupying the far more realistic, and arguably, more relatable middle ground are fairly thin on the ground, with filmmakers seemingly unable, or unwilling, to find drama in the ordinary everyday.
Tully, the third collaboration between director Jason Reitman and screenwriter by Diablo Cody – they previously worked together on Juno and Young Adult – dares to wade into the largely-unexplored places where is most often lived with a sensitive and penetratingly imaginative look at motherhood starring Charlize Theron is one of her best performances to date.
The premise is hardly out-of-the-box astounding but then it’s not meant to be – Theron plays Marlowe, a mother to two kids, one of whom has pronounced behavioural issues, who is about to give birth to her third, unplanned, child.
She’s the kind of mum who loves her kids dearly but is exhausted by the daily demands of parenting two tiny humans who, as children as wont to do, rarely follow the idealised script that must exist in the mind of every parent.
Her husband Drew (Ron Livingston) loves her, but with a demanding corporate job and time only to help the kids with their homework at night, is happily negligent in the way that non-primary caregivers tend to be; he sees that things are outwardly OK – he’s learnt to live with the microwaved pizzas for dinner – and carries on, content enough in his little, non-demanding bubble of occasional parenthood.
Marlowe, caught between the exhausting reality and her obvious desire to be a cupcake-baking, party-throwing mum, is exhausted, a state of near-constant stupefaction that only grows in dull intensity as she brings her daughter Mia home from the hospital.
At first she’s determined to do it all by herself, even though she is, in effect, a single parent, but the demands of getting up through the night and feeding Mia, as well as getting the two other kids to school and to sundry sporting events and extra-curricular activities, take their toll and so she reluctantly calls the night nanny her wealthier brother Craig (Mark Duplass) has offered to pay for as a baby gift.
Unnerved at first by having someone in their home overnight, even if she comes highly-recommended, Marlowe quickly comes to embrace the idea of Tully (Mackenzie Davis), a free-spirited, exuberant, knowledge rich soul – at one point, and this is evidence of the typically Diablo Cody sharply-sculptured lines of dialogue, Marlowe refers to her nighttime saviour as “… a book of fun facts for unpopular fourth graders” – relishing the extra sleep, the cleaned rooms, the cupcakes and the sense that life is back, rather belatedly under her control.
There are some odd disconnects – Tully is always gone in the morning when Marlowe awakes, Mia left cooing happily in her bassinet, and towards the end of the film, tells Marlowe abruptly that she needs to finish up – but mostly the middle part of the film is a reasonably happy tale of life regained, perspective reasserted and motherhood somewhat back in the happy glow of Hollywood’s more perfect parenting moments (her son’s behaviour issues, mostly likely autism-related though this is never articulated, do mar the idyll more than once).
So where, you might rightly ask, does the drama lie? Sure there is a mine of familial drama in the everyday but is that enough to sustain a film like Tully which is clearly aiming to say a lot about motherhood and stake out a position somewhere.
But where exactly, and unless Reitman and Cody are planning to plunge Marlowe back into the breast milk-filled pit of exhaustive despair she once inhabited, can a reasonable level of domestic happiness really go anywhere with narrative bite?
It turns out that it very much can, but to reveal too much about the final destination would be to give the game away; suffice to say the final act takes a daringly interesting look at what has really been going for Marlowe, using a darkly quirky approach to illustrate what motherhood can be like for women in happy marriages with normal kids who aren’t the protagonists in the movies of the week Marlowe so scornfully, and somewhat hilariously, dismisses at one point.
Theirs is not a world of beatific angels atop a fluffy cloud of domestic bliss, nor is it a vista of broken dreams and alluring escape options to greener pastures; rather it’s down in the trenches wonderful and difficult all at once, a mirror of life which rarely splits itself evenly between the good times and the bad, but mixes them all messily together until it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins.
This where Tully exists and where Theron, who is a mother herself, brilliantly exemplifies the very worst and best of motherhood, and how the self-imposed demands to be a paragon of perfection or at least somewhat approaching it, take their toll.
The script is witty and intensely-insightful, confronting and yet humourously-endearing, the characters rendered as real people with both flaws and good intentions – Drew for instance may have dropped the ball parenting-wise but he wants to be a good dad and husband and rises to the challenge when it becomes obvious what Marlowe is really dealing with – and the battle between being a great mum and retaining a health sense of self isn’t reduced to simplistic, bite-sized inanities.
Tully is an impressive piece of moviemaking – not always perfectly-executed but close enough that it makes you re-evaluate what it means to be a parent, realising anew that no mother lands a flawless 10 and that the drive to do so, while completely understandable, and surrounded by hagiographic depictions that do no one any favours, will take a toll that may look payable but ends up taking away more than it gives.
Pitted with witty oneliners, sage insights, and a slew of exquisitely well-executed scenes, Tully occupies that rare place where life is actually lived, giving us in the process one of the most realistic and affecting, and adventurously-imaginative depictions of motherhood for quite some time.