Friday, May 4, 2018

'Tully': Maternity Left

Motherhood, Such a Blessing!

The way director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody's Tully is being sold, with a series of perky trailers, and a poster that brings to mind Lisa Frank, you'd think it was a lighthearted comedy about the toils, troubles, and ultimate rewards of motherhood. And sure, it is about that. But it's also something much darker, and in many ways universal, going beyond the experiences of motherhood, and into the pain of losing your youth forever to the curse of irreversible adulthood.

Charlize Theron's performance as Marlo, mother of two young children with another due any day, is raw, emotional, and free of vanity. She's won an Oscar for an un-glamorous role before, in Monster, but she's even more believable here, not just because she reportedly gained close to 50 pounds for the film, but because everything about her feels authentic and lived in. When she wearily takes off a stained shirt in front of her children, only to have her daughter ask, "Mom! What's wrong with your body?!" you don't doubt for a second that motherhood can wreck even an Amazon like Theron.

Marlo is 40 and this third pregnancy was not planned, though she's quick to label it, without much enthusiasm, "a blessing" when its commented upon. She's just beginning maternity leave from her HR job, so her days are centered on shuffling her kids to school, and dealing with son Jonah's special needs and her daughter Sarah's growing insecurities. Her husband Drew (Ron Livingston), has a job that's too boring for even him to explain, and it often requires him to travel. He does enough around the house and with the kids to be able to say he and Marlo "share" responsibilities, though of course that's not really true. Marlo knows once that baby comes, only one of them will be waking up in the middle of the night to feed it.

Marlo's wealthy brother (Mark Duplass) offers her the gift of a "night nanny," a service he and his wife used after their third child was born. "They're like ninjas," he says, coming in at night allowing the new parents to sleep, only waking mom when it's time to feed. Marlo doesn't like the idea of someone else bonding with her child, and dismisses the offer.

But when the monotony, sleep deprivation, and pressures of caring for three children take their inevitable toll--illustrated with an expertly done montage of neverending late night feedings, diaper changing, and breast pumping, driving home the idea that hell is nothing if not the endless repetition of parenthood--she makes the call, and Tully (Mackenzie Davis) arrives.

Davis's Tully is both ethereal and earthy; Mary Poppins in a belly shirt, espousing little words of wisdom about motherhood ("Kiss your baby goodnight; she'll be different in the morning...we all will!"), while also complaining about romantic entanglements with her female roommate. She cleans in the night, bakes cupcakes for the kids, and shares sangria and confessions with Marlo. The relationship and the relief it brings helps Marlo break out of her growing depression; "It's like I can see colors again!" she tells her husband

Screenwriter Diablo Cody's writing has often exhausted me in the past, with her apparent need to make every single line of dialogue clever. But with Tully she's calmed down a bit, allowing the unspoken to do some of the heavy lifting, while still inserting moments of her patented acerbic wit. (In a conversation with her sister-in-law about an upcoming school talent show, Marlo asks her what her daughter's talent is. "Pilates," she replies.)

Tully slyly becomes more than just a story of mother and nanny bonding, building up to a resolution that is surprising, and I imagine some may be bothered by it. But as watched it play out, I appreciated how subtle it actually was. Miss a line and you may miss that resolution altogether, and it's a testament to the film that it would fare no less for that.

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