Produced by Bron Studios
Directed by Jason Reitman
Screenplay by Diablo Cody

In the summer of 1998, a teenybopper friend and I went to see some big deal war movie. Afterwards, we walked back to her car with our minds full of weeping men and piles of guts. “Did you like that?” she asked. I said, “Are we supposed to?” This is how I imagine a pair of staff sergeants might feel walking out of Tully.

Director Jason Reitman has given contemporary motherhood its Saving Private Ryan. There really is an entire movie about dull knives on cucumbers, currycombing a stressed child, and anatomically correct breastfeeding calamities. Most adults are familiar with such things, since most adults have children. But we have also agreed to keep our public conversations about them brief and jokey. There are good reasons for this. Parents protect children by preserving their privacy. Stories of family life also bleed into other categories of marginal mentionability.

This means that Tully is not a PSA or awareness campaign. People who are likely to become interested in a movie about postpartum life already know that starting with a failed epidural is inauspicious. They will spot the single flub in the otherwise astonishing verisimilitude (no third baby has ever been put in snappy jammies overnight). And they will wonder how the nulliparous Charlize Theron pulled this off. She looms through scenes as Marlo, a new mother again at 40, gaunt in every way except the usual one. Her hulk of a body is as wrecked as her house. That anyone who does not have a baby would consider herself exhausted is risible. Oh, and there are two other kids.

Good news, though: Tully passes the Bechdel test. In desperation, Marlo procures Tully (Mackenzie Davis), a night nanny, which is a marvelous kind of servant that rich people have (Marlo’s loaded brother said he’d pay). The two women talk to each other at length about many things other than men. They are insightful, casting their ideas into illuminating conceits. They are conversant in numerous genres of trivia. They ponder career, ambition, and aging. They do it all with the charm of natural paranomasiacs.

Alas, these wide-ranging discourses are excursus on one gauche theme. There is a non-man topic upon which women will cogitate profoundly: their children, and motherhood itself. These matters, once possessed, risk driving men out of a woman’s field of affection altogether. Evolutionary biology surely has a neat explanation for this harm. For regular people, husband/baby tension within a family is to be negotiated carefully. Tully’s take on this is a non-starter for those of tender morals, but it is the greatest clue toward the plot twist that takes a distant second to Ms. Theron in the film’s appeal.

Tully herself is too weird to be true. She overacts, the banter is too preternatural, and she and Marlo go down in a maelstrom of reverse-Freudian mermaids, booze, and plugged milk ducts. No kidding, this is a movie now.

[Spoilers in this section]

Is this schizoid paranoia, or Gen-Xistential blues? Marlo and her husband Drew (Ron Livingston) have mixed feelings on their so-called life. Their social cohort is entering middle age with more money, cooler jobs, and fewer faux pas like being pregnant again. Both act out in their heart language, irony, but Marlo’s ailment is more than the bad attitude that is her birthright.

There are several contenders for the film’s epitomic line. “Mom, what’s wrong with your body?” has obvious appeal. Likewise, “Girls don’t heal.” But the winner must be, “You need some sleep, Mommy.” Those who have brought home babies will be tempted to see the value in a condition that cleans the house and generates herds of multichromatic cupcakes. Writer Diablo Cody’s manifestation of postpartum mental illness is certainly inventive. Despite some mechanical questions, her topicality is right on. It is the fantasy of every postpartum woman: if I could just sleep, everything would be OK.

One wonders how much hardship could be mitigated if new moms got enough rest.  The combination of hormonal uproar, injuries from birth and breastfeeding, social isolation, and the demands of a household (especially one with older children) can make the postpartum period a nightmare—minus the sleep. Tully takes down Drew in the conventional wisdom that hastens to blame fathers when it appears that a mother has not had enough help. This is no fairer to Drew than it is to any other decent guy whose best wasn’t perfect. One of themselves, even a feminist of their own, said (in a long and prickly rumination on breastfeeding), “Why should [a husband] do more? There’s no use in both of us being a wreck in the morning.”

Couples have no end of rational explanations for keeping the product of their fruitful multiplication to 1.8. But experience with the frightening turmoil that can follow the birth of a baby may be a larger factor than is claimed. Nobody wants to whine, but being postpartum can be rotten even for those without a mental illness diagnosis. “Back to sleep” was a great campaign for babies. Reworked as a movement to stabilize new moms, it sounds too easy, so maybe it’s worth a try. What’s the nanny state doing at night, anyway?

Any practical takeaway is likely to get lost in confusion over whether we liked Tully, and whether we are supposed to. It’s hard to imagine the staff sergeants going home from Marlo’s spectacular deployments of F-bombs and telling their husbands, “Let’s make a baby!” After all, they’ve already proven how tough and brave they are by enlisting in the military. Ivanka, Adele, and for crying out loud Serena Williams were reduced to heaps of goo by having a baby. What hope is there for anyone else?

The contemporary inability to deal with the difficulties of life’s most gratifying and blessed work is intrinsic to the Mobius tautology that is feminist thought. Women want babies, and they want having babies to be nice, and if having babies is not nice women do not want babies, so having babies must be made nice because women want babies, unless women do not want babies, in which case women should not have to have babies because it would not be nice, and women should only have nice things, like babies. Ugh, why can’t women think about anything besides babies? Which reminds me! Does talking about babies really count as passing the Bechdel test? Isn’t that even worse than only talking about men?

We’ll leave that sticky bit on the big toe of the chronically aggrieved. Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman are not trying to talk anyone out of (or into) having babies any more than they tried, in Juno, to talk anyone into or out of adoption. When Marlo drops her drollery, she protects the good from being candied or slandered. “I miss her,” she weeps after a few hours away from baby Mia—a pure disclosure of the consuming new-baby love that cries, tries, and flies in the face of pain. Life usually keeps pain and joy separate. The giving of life brings them into extraordinary conjunction. Es ist das höchste der Gefühle.


[Image via Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America (Charlize TheronUploaded by maybeMaybeMaybe) [CC BY-SA 2.0]]