Not doing it for the kids: Charlize Theron's nuanced portrayal of motherhood in Diablo Cody's "Tully."
There’s a scene midway through Tully where Charlize Theron tears off her T-shirt in the kitchen and slumps at the table, wearing just her bra. It is the most realistic and justified reason for a woman to strip off in a film that I’ve seen in a very long time. It’s in the trailer for the movie as well and serves as a perfect calling card for why this film deserves to be seen by a wide audience, not just mothers.
Sitting there in her comfortable, nude-coloured bra, breasts sagging and post-baby stomach out on show, her daughter asks her what’s wrong with her body. The point being that nothing is wrong with her body, that’s how a female body can look once it’s produced children and that should be enough. But we’re just not used to seeing it out so brazenly on display, certainly not in Hollywood movies (unless as the butt of some unfunny ‘I’m fat’ pregnancy jokes), and it’s a big part of why Tully should be applauded for offering up a different version of events. I’m loath to bring up the fact that Charlize Theron purposely gained three and a half stones in weight for this role, as truly that’s not the focus here, but knowing that is really her flesh, not a prosthetic alien cushion of flab, somehow makes her portrayal of a weary mum all the more believable and relatable. You also get a timely reminder throughout of why Charlize Theron is an Oscar-winner.
Full disclosure, I’ve had two children, and there were a number of aspects of Tully that felt similar to my own experience. The judgment from others on your behaviour when pregnant is one, as is how you unfairly judge yourself and rate how well you are doing at being a parent based on a random set of factors plucked from who-knows-where. The monotony of the daily rituals in keeping a baby fed, clean and rested plays out on screen here in memorable and recognisable fashion, with smart editing almost turning the repetition into a symphony of family life, albeit one that can drive parents to despair.
Without ruining what happens, Diablo Cody’s script revolves around Charlize’s Marlo, a mum of three who hasn’t lost her skill in snapping back a sassy one-liner but has lost her way in life since parenthood took hold. She loves her kids but acknowledging how exhausting it can be, reluctantly takes her rich brother’s advice to hire a night nanny, the Tully of the title, to look after her new-born once the sun goes down, allowing Marlo to get some much-needed sleep. The film shows the moral wrestle you can go through when you realise you need some help but don’t want to admit that, as seen when Tully arrives, and Marlo expresses guilt at even allowing someone else to watch over her child.
"This ain’t the first time the Reitman-Cody combo has been out for a spin and like Juno, this offers up a sense of overwhelming sadness at times while still making you laugh out loud. "
What Tully does so brilliantly, sometimes without you even noticing, is present certain aspects of motherhood that often don’t get mentioned in films. It was the little things that are particularly worthy of respect, such as a shot of Marlo walking to the bathroom shortly after having given birth wearing padded maternity knickers, and she also doesn’t care that they are on show. Director Jason Reitman didn’t need to present much more than that, but how refreshing to see it as part of the normal process of having kids. Similarly, I don’t need to watch (or re-live) lengthy scenes about cracked nipples as a consequence of painful breastfeeding but by including a short scene that shows it happens, is so much better than pretending it never does. Likewise, when Marlo and her husband Drew are out in the park with the kids, it’s pleasing to witness the nonchalance exhibited by Marlo when her daughter interrupts their conversation to ask for a drink and a re-useable water bottle gets handed over without missing a beat. There’s a lot of stuff that parents are expected to have on them at all times, even once they are past the nappy stage. As for the various scenes-with-kids-in cars, yep, been there, done that, and regretted shouting.
The story does veer sharply into weird territory about an hour in, making you question Marlo and her benign husband’s relationship but stick with it as there is so much humour along the way. This is not about laughing at anyone struggling with the complexities of parenthood but showing that there is no shame in finding it hard or lonely and that many of us do, and for some reason we don’t talk about it as much as we should. Bowing to being a movie, Tully does take that concept to certain extremes, but it also offers up some gems, including refocusing those early months post-pregnancy to include the wellbeing of the mother as much as the baby.
This ain’t the first time the Reitman-Cody combo has been out for a spin and like Juno, this offers up a sense of overwhelming sadness at times while still making you laugh out loud. You feel true empathy for the characters and as with some of the best movies see real emotions reflected back. Hopefully the pedigree of the filmmakers and the acting talent will pull many into Tully’s world and it’s worth stressing that is not a film that should only appeal if you have kids. In a similar fashion I’m not an Avenger, never will be (sadly) but I lapped up Infinity War and likewise I have no experience of wrangling dinosaurs but fully expect to get sucked into Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. Tully has a kick-ass soundtrack, a raft of wonderful pop culture references including a nod to Animaniacs’ Pinky & the Brain (ripe for a revival in their own right) and remember, Charlize strips off if you really do need that as another incentive. The absence of female friends was concerning in this, but I think me and Tully would get on just fine.
By Natalie Jamieson
"Tully" is released on May 4th 2018 in the UK