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Tully film review
Image: Focus Features

Film

Tully is a Perfect Theron Vehicle That Pays Tribute to the Strain of Motherhood

What Tully truly does well is mine the often grueling and thankless work that mothers do.

Sundance 2018: Jason Reitman’s Tully

Director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody (Juno, Young Adult) successfully reteam for a story about Marlo (Charlize Theron), an exhausted mother of three who agrees to accept the help of Tully (Mackenzie Davis), a “night nurse” who her brother (Mark Duplass) has hired to care for her newborn during the dead of night so that she can get some rest. It’s a showcase for Theron’s acting prowess, fully wading into the perils of domesticity and motherhood. Like with other prominent roles (Monster, Mad Max: Fury Road, Atomic Blond), Theron has transformed her entire countenance — here she viscerally relays a deflated woman who has no energy to take care of herself or others by proxy. With her messy hair, bloated stomach, wardrobe consisting of bulky items that mask her figure, and devil-may-care attitude, she’s a stand-in for mothers who are running on empty and heading towards inevitable crisis. Tully may not fully explicate the multi-faceted world of women who have given their bodies and good portion of their lives to children, but it respectfully delves into the toll that path in life can take.

The concept that women need support without having to ask for it, and can have a deeply complicated relationship with themselves or the children they bear, feels urgently relevant in Tully. There are untold annals left unexplored on this topic, as women’s domestic lives have historically been kept private and deemed inferior to the public lives of men. Admitting weakness or a sense of defeat is tantamount to not giving your all as a mother. Marlo being so hesitant to ask for any help is a testament to the societal pressure put on women to be perfect in every facet of their lives, with flawed, dissatisfying motherhood being the greatest of all sins.

Tully film 2018
Image; Focus Features

Diablo Cody’s script is sex-positive as per usual, treading a racy line with comedic punches. Tully loses some of its eloquence when dealing with how to remedy Marlo’s non-existent sex life with her two-dimensional husband (Ron Livingston), who seems oblivious to her efforts. Too much attention is given to satisfying what Marlo thinks may turn her husband on, and not what she personally finds attractive. Cody coyly plays with the risks that Tully pushes Marlo to make more than the reasons why Marlo needs that sense of danger in her life in the first place. There’s a fair amount of teasing about Marlo’s lesbian past, most of which is bolstered with provocative imagery to provoke — and not to discuss — what actually went wrong with that avenue of her life, or why exactly she chose to settle down with a husband who offers her next to nothing, least of all relief from her nearly 24/7 duties. Tully’s magnetism is more to do with her free-spirited nature and physical fitness than with Marlo being able to connect with her on a higher level. The time that Tully grants Marlo to take care of herself helps ease her responsibilities, but Marlo’s gaps in self-knowledge and repair remain.

It’s admirable to feature breastfeeding so prominently, from pumping milk to the severe chafing of nipples, and Reitman films everything with steady competence. Cody’s script doesn’t include much dialogue between women outside of Marlo and Tully, so it’s hard to discern how Marlo’s life got to this point (as she provides little to no details), and who — if anyone — can truly help. This relationship between Marlo and Tully improves and is given a significant dimension when a hard truth is exposed with a last-minute revelation. This information feels a bit cheap, semi-cliche, and blatantly manipulative, but true to Marlo’s story. It rings authentic because the substantive spectacle of Marlo being so utterly mentally and physically depleted helps imbue the audience with empathy for her situation.

Tully
Image: Focus Features

Unfortunately, Marlo’s vision of herself compared to the nostalgic vitality of what Tully has tried to inject into her life is left up in the air without a satisfactory dissection. Playing with a conceit for the majority of the film in this case feels like a misfire. The more involving discussion of who exactly Marlo wants to become is left off the table and has been sacrificed so that the more salacious elements can make it palatable to a broader audience. What Tully truly does well is mine the often grueling and thankless work that mothers do.

Aside from some clunky one-liners here and there, Tully manages to pull off themes of depression, fatigue, and womanhood under prolonged duress. What is normally seen as a passive life is actually incredibly active, dedicated to taking care of others while all too often repressing one own’s needs, and the healthy yearning to take back the self.

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Written By

Brian Marks is Sordid Cinema's Lead Film Critic. His writing has appeared in The Village Voice, LA Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, and Ampersand. He's a graduate of USC's master's program in Specialized Arts Journalism. You can find more of his writing at InPraiseofCinema.com. Best film experience: driving halfway across the the country for a screening of Jean-Luc Godard's "King Lear." Totally worth it.

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