Diablo Cody’s Tully was praised for its honest, realistic portrayals of the challenges of motherhood—in the trailers alone, new mom Marlo, played by Charlize Theron, joked about her leaking breasts, postpartum body and mommy porn.
But Tully goes beyond just showing everyday realities of motherhood: it delves into the darkest, most terrifying aspects of being a mom in our society and counters media that portrays moms as superhuman as well as media portraying them as ultra-vulnerable. Tully turns those archetypes on their head—and reveals mothers to be simply human.
Marlo is far from blissed-out after the birth of her third child. She experienced postpartum depression after the birth of her second, and she already has a lot on her plate, including caring for one child who has special needs. Concerned about her well-being, her rich brother offers to pay for a night nanny—someone to come each night and care for the infant while Marlo sleeps.
Marlo initially dismisses the idea, remarking that is sounds like something out of “a Lifetime movie where the nanny tries to kill the family and the mom survives and she has to walk with a cane at the end”—presumably a reference to the 1992 thriller The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, along with other films like it. But as the pressures of caring for three children start to weigh on her though, Marlo gives in. She calls the night nanny, and a 20-something woman named Tully, played by Mackenzie Davis, shows up.
Tully cares for the baby, cleans the house and even bakes cupcakes. She quickly becomes Marlo’s friend and confidant. But things get weird when the two get in a terrible car accident after a night of binge-drinking—and we learn that Tully is actually a figment of Marlo’s imagination, based on a younger version of herself. “Tully” was Marlo’s last name before marriage. “Tully” isn’t Marlo’s nanny—she’s a reminder of who Marlo once was, and who she could have been.
Like other thriller and horror films about motherhood like The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, Rosemary’s Baby, or the recent home invasion film Breaking In, Tully explores our cultural anxieties around motherhood putting women in danger—but Marlo isn’t in danger because of frightening, fantastical scenarios like psychotic nannies or home invasions, or even her baby being the antichrist. She is in grave danger because of the real, everyday conditions of our unaccommodating, unsupportive, patriarchal society.
By locating horror in the everyday experiences of mothering, rather than rare encounters outside of our control, Tully grounded anxiety around motherhood in a reality that we can’t leave behind when we walk out of a movie theater.
The story of a woman reconnecting with her life by channeling a younger version of herself could be empowering—but instead, Marlo’s connection with her past almost kills her. That is a terrifying conclusion: the film, in this way, suggests that it’s not possible for Marlo, or the many women who see themselves in her fictional existence, to strike a real balance in their lives, to juggle their needs and the needs of others without support. Tully’s manifestation as a caregiver is not as merely a hallucination—it’s a metaphor for a mother struggling to meet her own multifaceted needs.
No, Tully insists. There is no space for the kind of joyful postpartum balance that Marlo appeared to have achieved in a world where she’s not sufficiently supported socially or societally. No, Marlo cannot find time to get good sleep, nurse her baby, care for her young children, deal with her son’s special needs at school, bake cupcakes for the class and fulfill her husband’s sexual fantasies.
When Tully’s car plummeted off of a bridge in the film’s gut-wrenching climax, it reminded me of the iconic end scene in Thelma and Louise—a film that, by way of its own similar conclusion, declared that there was little room in the real world for female empowerment and solidarity. No, Tully insists on the bridge. Women can’t have it all—and our socially-sanctioned pursuit of it just could kill us.
But Tully doesn’t end after its titular character careens off of a cliff. Instead, Marlo survives—and her husband, having realized the terrifying extent of what’s been going on, attempts to show her the support she needs.
At the end of Tully, we see Marlo walking around her home with a cane—much like the horror-movie wife she references earlier in the film. In The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, the film’s protagonist, Claire, hires a nanny so she can go back to work who then slowly plots to take over her life and ultimately attempts to kill her. But it isn’t just a career outside of the house that Marlo wants—it’s a sense of herself as a person outside of her role as a mother. Marlo is not endangered by her need to ask for help, nor is she threatened for desiring more than motherhood. Instead, she nearly kills herself by doing her best to deny she needs support.
Tully reminds us that mothers are, in fact, simply human beings—strong, vulnerable, thriving, struggling and everything in between. While the film’s bleak portrayal of motherhood was indeed extreme, its exaggerated darkness was necessary for starting an important conversation on how we as a culture depict, value and think about motherhood.
Marisa Crawford writes about feminism, pop culture and books for venues including Broadly, Bitch, BUST and Hyperallergic. She is also the founder and editor-in-chief of the feminist literary/pop culture website Weird Sister, and is the author of two books of poetry.
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