From the very first moment that Tully opens, it’s up close and personal. The camera is intimate, and reveals the story and the characters from voyeuristic angles and through personal details. Charlize Theron plays Marlo, a woman who is loving and on the edge of spiraling into the dark depths of postpartum depression. The film, directed by Jason Reitman and written by Diablo Cody is an exploration into postpartum depression, the mental and physical toll it takes on women, and one woman’s resiliency. Theron is at her best! She is beautifully engaging and delivers the character with her entire Being. Theron is transformative and fearless, which is just what the character calls for. This isn’t new for Theron, she has always been up for transforming into anyone and anything, no matter how physically or emotionally demanding the role, from genres that depict emotionally complex human beings like Aileen Wuornos in Monster and the guilt-ridden Sylvia in The Burning Plain, to the unapologetic characters in action and shoot’em up genres like her character Lorraine Broughton in Atomic Blonde or Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury.
Tully’s storyline is straightforward, Marlo is about to deliver her third child and she is exhausted. Her two other children, as adorable as they may be, present challenges that she can barely meet. Her husband (Ron Livingston) is doing his best but his blinders are on pretty tightly. A chance meeting with an old roommate in a coffee shop prior to giving birth plants the seeds of memory and rekindles a longing for a freer time in Marlo’s life. As the seeds blossom they provide a lifeline. When the third baby comes, Marlo hires a night nanny, enter Tully, played by Mackenzie Davis.
Postpartum depression is a phenomenon that is experienced by half of the world and misunderstood and/or dismissed by the other half. Women have been communicating and supporting one another through this for thousands of years, but in modern history, when the structure around society and community has morphed into one of isolation and a lack of community, postpartum depression takes a toll on new mothers that can have dire consequences. As society changed from communal to more individualistic, women found that their emotional and psychological needs that are a result of childbearing fell on the deaf ears of male dominated medical establishment, and women have been sounding alarms ever since. In 1892, Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper”, a story based on her own postpartum depression and the “treatment” by Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, which called for total isolation and complete idleness as a cure. In the short story, the patient’s only way to survive the depression and treatment is madness. Tully follows in the footsteps of works like Perkin Gillman’s and even alludes to Chantal Akerman’s work to explore women’s struggles with societal and emotional pressure. Marlo is forced to come full circle and reconcile herself with her choices, and the fact that one can only move forward from where they stand at any given moment.
Tully takes the viewer into the entanglement between Marlo and Tully. Tully is just what the doctor ordered, but Tully just seems too good to be true, and for most of the film, there are always possibilities of how things will turn out. But, unfortunately, Tully follows a textbook structure, circuitous, predictable, and complete with cookie-cutter symbolism (water, mermaid/siren, etc.). Diablo Cody stops short of bringing it home, and wraps it all up cleanly and simplistically, as if the cure for postpartum depression and the weight that oppresses women is easily lifted by men helping out with household chores.
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