‘Tully,’ written by UI grad Diablo Cody, is bound to be a classic film on motherhood


FilmScene — Opens Friday, May 4

Charlize Theron gives a committed performance in “Tully,” and not just because she gained around 30 pounds for the role. — film still

When she won an Academy Award for the coming-of-age dramedy Juno, Diablo Cody was crowned Hollywood’s quirky screenwriter. More than 10 years later, Tully finds the irreverent voice that empowered teenaged Juno speaking as a mother of three, ranting to her children’s principal about how the word “quirky,” used to describe her misbehaving son, is code for “retarded” and different and unwanted.

With Tully, a film still squarely in Cody’s wheelhouse, the University of Iowa alumna and 39-year-old mother of two drops (most of) the whimsy and tackles a special sense of midlife fatigue and dissatisfaction. Think Bad Moms but with a lot more depression, breast pumping and literary references.

Tully, directed by Jason Reitman, premiered at FilmScene on May 4, marking the fourth release of a major motion picture with Iowa connections — including The Miracle Season, A Quiet Place and Avengers: Infinity War — in the past two months.

Brook Busey, known by her pen name Diablo Cody, was born and raised in Lemont, Illinois, and graduated with a communications studies degree from UI in 2000. She worked at the student radio station KRUI 89.7 FM and contributed to the UI Libraries’ Dada retrospective conversion project while in Iowa City. Since making her screenwriting debut with Juno, Cody has penned (and in some cases produced) the films Jennifer’s Body, Ricki and the Flash and Young Adult, and the Showtime series United States of Tara.

Tully follows Marlo (Charlize Theron), who has recently given birth to her third child and finds herself exhausted, unmotivated and a little too reliant on frozen food to feed her kids. With her well-meaning husband (Ron Livingston) busy with work, Marlo reluctantly accepts the offer from her affluent brother (Mark Duplass) to hire a night nurse. When the nurse Tully (Mackenzie Davis) shows up — sporting a crop top and gushing over the miracle of motherhood — Marlo finds her “weird.” But after experiencing the wonder of a good night’s sleep and a clean house, Marlo starts to bond with the 26-year-old free spirit, and their friendship grows evermore heartwarming and, well, weird.

Theron is not an Atomic Blonde in this one — though the characters have more in common than you might think — and her willingness to gain weight for a role has once again contributed to a visceral, embodied performance (even if it led to months of struggle for the actress). Davis is strong as well, if overshadowed by Theron. Tully’s mysterious day life, existential ponderings and affection for ’80s culture drew a positive association for me with Davis’ character in the “San Junipero” episode of Black Mirror.

Tully’s ending is bound to divide audience opinion (I’d guess around one in 10 will huff or roll their eyes), but it doesn’t change the big message carried throughout, more a commiseration than a theme: Motherhood is mentally and physically hard, and even if you can do it on your own, you shouldn’t have to. Utilizing a co-parent, friend, family member and, if it’s accessible, hired help is vital, not shameful.

As a single, childless 20-something, the film served as more than a reminder for me to chase my dream, reach out to the mothers in my life or value birth control — it critiques the pedestal on which our culture has placed busyness and total autonomy. Life isn’t a competition to see who can get the fewest hours of sleep, or juggle the most tasks at once. Making enough time for rest and indulgence is not just acceptable, but healthy. And don’t let the proverbial woman at the café who shakes her head at you for ordering a decaf latte while pregnant — “you know there are still trace amounts of caffeine in decaf, right?” she tells Marlo, in so many words — make you feel like a failure.

Tully is not without its problems. For one, I wouldn’t look to the film for an accurate or positive depiction of mental illness — and not just because of the aforementioned use of the r-word. Those who have suffered from postpartum depression will likely find elements to relate to, but a serious discussion of depression or Marlo’s son’s behavioral disorder doesn’t take place. Artistic license is clearly taken, despite the fact the film feels, at times, like a documentarian portrayal of 21st-century middle-class motherhood.

Still, I’m a big fan of Tully, from its moments of whip-smart sarcasm to its subtle sense of mystery and dread, building to a distinct climax. As Juno spoke to the misunderstood quirky kid, Tully has a way with the disaffected mom.

Tully is currently showing at FilmScene and local Marcus Theatres.

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