When it’s clear two creative individuals have a good rapport, you wonder why they don’t collaborate more often than they do, assuming there exist long stretches of inactivity between the two. Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody spent roughly four years apart creatively between Juno and Young Adult, and their latest joint effort, the Sundance-hit Tully, unbelievably comes around seven years after that. Though Tully continues their string of charming and/or biting dramady successes, it’s easy to understand why one person generally wouldn’t always wish to work with the other. There’s usually the burden of proving one can work independently of the other and working with a mix of folks can be stimulating and creatively freeing.
Perhaps it’s a bit of stretch, but Tully reveals a thematic pattern between all three of Reitman and Cody’s team-ups. The film makes a concerted effort demonstrating the contrasts between fantasy and reality, whether it be mermaids as partial symbols of fantasy, ethereal shots and sequences clueing the audience in on either Marlo’s (Charlize Theron) emotional or physical states or the guilty pleasure paradox that is reality television. Most importantly, though, like Young Adult and to an extent Juno before it, Tully sees its exhausted and desperate protagonist learning to reconcile fantasy with often harsh realities.
Unfortunately, in this particular circumstance, such retreading has given rise to swathes of controversy. I must admit I find uneasiness not at the film’s peculiar twist, but rather as to whether or not Reitman and Cody handled it with the utmost sensitivity. Clearly, as a male viewer, I’m in no position to disbelieve either Cody in that the final product represents how she felt after the births of her own children, or those decrying its view of postpartum depression as instead postpartum psychosis given media’s history of exploiting so-called female hysteria. All I can do is listen and provide my own view without delegitimizing the other.
With that said, knowing my opinion in this regard may not mean much, I thought Cody and Reitman approached this plot point and the buildup to it with professionalism and care. Painstakingly ensuring we empathize with and connect to Marlo throughout, for all of her happiness, stresses and griefs, the narrative builds a protagonist too bound by realism not to recognize in some form. We wish to console her through her helplessness and cherish each moment shared between her and Mackenzie Davis’s titular night nanny, knowing Tully is just about her only avenue of relief.
At no point do we look upon Marlo as a psychologically broken mother in need of patronizing pity because we are so intimately tethered to her, and though the twist may raise some questions, it itself cannot undo the bonds we’ve sealed with her. The reveal’s abruptness is discomforting because it’s meant to be, sharply shedding light on subject matter not seen with this sort of depth and raw honesty. What it may forsake in clinical accuracy and storytelling grace, it gains in sheer power and effectiveness, whether it be in calling attention to the oft-unspoken trials and tribulations of motherhood or purposefully igniting passionate discussion with divisive style to achieve a similar end.
Sometimes, you need a megaphone to disrupt the boot camp’s once-peaceful slumber, and given both Juno and Jennifer’s Body’s use of hyperbolically Heckerling-style teen-speak as well as Young Adult’s darkly incisive view of nostalgia-afflicted adulthood, it’s appropriate Cody wouldn’t completely abandon her penchant for deliberate anti-subtlety amidst what is perhaps her most matured work. Laughter is not as much the focus as is compassion, the storytelling, though occasionally permitting some perfunctory character beats, endears itself with and complements Reitman’s steady hand in a way that her typical approach hasn’t before and Theron’s Marlo is a more tangible figure than Juno or Young Adult’s Mavis.
Of course, the latter may be partially down to Theron throwing herself into a lead performance that expertly balances jolting outbursts with depth of feeling in simplistic expressions and line deliveries, but Cody’s focus on seemingly insignificant details and Reitman’s equal sympathy allow for our own greater sense of attachment. We see her struggle in some moments while other minor characters effortlessly resolve the problem, bringing up deeper inadequacies within her, catch a glimpse of the person she could have been and escape into late-night scripted fantasies reminding her in some way of her past life.
She is a mother who feels as though the answers are eluding her, taking comfort and refuge in Tully’s natural new-age wisdom. Ultimately, the film is an exploration of the necessity of letting go, particularly to the ideals we construct and to which we compare ourselves without judging the psychological need to possess them, and under Cody’s writing, Marlo couldn’t feel more alive.
It’s an oft-repeated idea through many a story that parenting is essentially guess-and-check work, and its longevity is all but an explicit indicator of its accepted truth, making Tully yet another effort validating that truth. While that may sound as though the film knowingly practices a wash-rinse-repeat formula, little if anything else has come close to replicating this particular endorsement so soulfully. Parenting is an enterprise often times without clear-cut solutions, and it’s difficult to judge anyone for not immediately knowing some answers. Cody never stoops so low in her depiction of Marlo, and perhaps that’s also why the twist works.