While I don’t have the true credentials of a birthing mom of three, as a dad and as a psychologist, I feel compelled to write about my take on Charlize Theron’s latest film Tully (2018).
In the film, Theron portrays Marlo, a seemingly disillusioned and stressed suburban mom of two, with one “accidental surprise” on the way. Her son is “atypical,” and likely on the Autism Spectrum. Her life isn’t easy; finances, schedules, and a loving husband distracted by work and playing too many video games add to her stress.
The tension in this film was palpable, even in the first 10 minutes. I was stressed out for 95% of this film, and while I loved having my babies, the screaming, sleep loss, and stress felt again immediate and exhausting.
Similar to Juno (2007), this film speaks to the lives of everyday families with everyday stressors. It also magnifies the urban, suburban, boring, and repetitive life of being a mom and a dad. But, naturally, there’s a twist.
My first clue to the twist was at the beginning of the film in which the extremely large, pregnant Marlo encounters a woman from her past. The encounter is awkward. She and this woman clearly had been in a romantic relationship earlier in their lives. The difference is that while Marlo had moved on with her life and had kids, her ex-girlfriend still lives the same life and embodies a world that could have been.
The brief encounter with this woman sets the stage for the growth and development but also stagnation of Charlize’s character.
At one point she states she wanted a stable life, different from her own childhood with stability and a routine she could provide for her own kids. This stabilization of routine, interestingly, is vitally important for her son Jonah, who is on the spectrum and repeatedly cannot handle change.
A stable balance had been built in her family until her daughter Mia arrived. Marlo’s very wealthy brother recommends a night nurse who could help her avoid some prior incident, which was not elaborated upon.
As a psychologist, I immediately thought of post-partum depression.
My stress increased thinking of this mom on her own, under stress, and in her car with her baby. I did not want to see a film about a mom killing her family. Thankfully, this is not what this film is about.
Despite the stress, there are hilarious, laugh-out-loud moments that I think bring to the forefront the true characteristics of Charlize Theron. She brings a great deal of her own personality into the film, and delivers an incredible, committed performance. Her evolution from an exhausted mom to a confident and energized woman overnight is astonishing. This transformation is supposedly due to the night nurse her brother offered to her.
She was hesitant to call initially, thinking she should savor that special early time to bond. But after a series of exhaustive nights of breastfeeding, pumping, diaper changing, and having two other kids to manage and many other stressors, she finally decides to call for help.
The compilation of the insane monotony of raising a baby with other kids is about the best depiction of parenting reality I’ve ever seen. Truly accurate, and terrifyingly stressful. How we ever procreate willingly is a wonder!
Midway through the film, we meet Tully, played by Mackenzie Davis.
When we first see Tully, she appears threatening in a deceptively non-threatening way. She’s thin, smart, lively, and excited to help—everything that Marlo wants to be, but doesn’t have the energy for. She has a unique way of connecting with and loving Marlo that makes their unlikely friendship feels somewhat sibling-esque; a little mentoring, and fairly nostalgic.
This 26-year-old ball of energy picks up on every nuance and helps Marlo find a way to be the parent she always wanted to be. Tully feels unreal, to the point that my stress actually increased. Something must be wrong, but what could it be?
Tully feels very much like a past version of Marlo: A bohemian with many relationships. Free-spirited and unweighted. Tully finishes sentences in an odd and inappropriate way. But Marlo is weighed down with the scary suburban normalcy of private school and loneliness. She is essentially alone.
Near the end of the film, Tully suggests that they take a night off in Brooklyn.
Marlo caves and they drive into New York listening to 80’s music, very likely the same music that Marlo listened to in her 20’s. They drank bourbon, shared stories, and partied in a neighborhood where Marlo spent a lot of time in her youth. But the party in Brooklyn ended when Marlo had to breastfeed. Her milk had dropped, causing her enormous pain. Tully was there for her and helped relieve the pain.
After such support from Tully, Marlo effectively explodes, stealing a bike and racing to the apartment she shared with her lover decades ago. Nobody is there. That early life is gone. Tully tries to soothe Marlo and remind her she accomplished her goal of a stable and loving life. Is it boring? Yes. Monotonous? Of course. But, she achieved her unknown dream of providing stability to her next generation.
On the drive home, Marlo and Tully share stories and philosophies and try to stay awake. Both fall into a drunken stupor, Marlo wrecks the car by driving it into a river. A dreamlike mermaid appears to save Marlo, in the form of Tully.
At the hospital, the doctor asks the husband about Marlo’s history of psychiatric illness. The husband says nothing, but the doctor seems suspicious, and upon discharge, the nurse asked for Marlo’s maiden name.
The husband answered, “Tully.”
Of course, this film is about caring for your family during stress—and especially during pregnancy. We need support and understanding. But more so, this is a story about Postpartum psychosis. Postpartum psychosis typically occurs within the 12 months following having a baby.
Symptoms include the following:
- You feel amazing and have never had more energy in your life. Your mind does not quit.
- Your life seems to make complete sense and you are making connections about life experiences you have never had before.
- You may hear or see things that others do not. Such voices may even suggest you harm others. It’s as if a radio is playing in your head. Paranoia is also common.
- Conflicts increase with those around you. Anger and dissension increase in a way that is uncommon for your past behavior.
In Tully, Charlize Theron brings her best performance. Post-partum depression and psychosis are real. We are fragile and seek the best for our kids. But sometimes it can be too much.
Our society is fractured by economic differences, the need to put on a pretty suburban face, and the desire for perfection, all of which compound a pressing need to better support and understand women and mothers in a world that is, despite technological advancements, becoming increasingly disconnected.