It only takes a few minutes watching Tully to realize this is not your typical Hollywood portrayal of motherhood. From the glimpse of mesh underwear at the hospital to the flickers of frustration and exhaustion that play across the face of Marlo (Charlize Theron) in the immediate postpartum period, it offers up something messier and more difficult than we are used to seeing. For me, as the mother of an 8-month-old baby, the experience was simultaneously familiar and unsettling. But if I had made my peace with Marlo's journey, Tully's plot twist late in the film demanded I reconsider everything I had seen before, and brought to the surface a facet of motherhood many of us are afraid to address out loud.
The reactions to the film from some viewers have varied wildly, and we should talk about them.
Warning: Plot spoilers to follow.
When Marlo, a pregnant mother of two, is offered the “gift” of a night nanny by her brother (Mark Duplass), it is insinuated that Marlo previously struggled with postpartum depression. Exhausted after the birth of her third child, she eventually gives in to the idea. Enter Tully (Mackenzie Davis), the cool, 20-something free spirit there to rescue baby Mia, and with her, Marlo.
Tully gets the tiny details, and the repetition, of motherhood right: the frustration of spilling freshly pumped breast milk, pleading with your newborn to “just take” the damn pacifier, placing the baby’s carrier atop the dryer in hopes that the vibration will yield sleep, the feeling of giving zero f*cks when you peel off a shirt at the dinner table because it’s covered in something spilled by a child.
This ending — as "gotcha!” as it might feel to some — might be the most honest piece of the movie, perhaps even more so than the “raw” images of motherhood that we saw earlier.
However, once Tully, the magical night nanny, enters the picture, everything seems to shift. Suddenly, Marlo is feeling more like herself again — she has energy for her other children, she puts on makeup, she sings Carly Rae Jepsen at karaoke. It all seems a little too good to be true, and I couldn’t help but wonder while watching: Is it that easy? Would sleep really remedy all of the darkness that sometimes comes along with those newborn weeks?
As in parenting, just as you feel Marlo is doing well (or you are doing well), you are leveled with a correction. In the final minutes of the film, we learn that Tully never existed at all; rather, she was a representation of Marlo’s younger self, a symbol of a life that she left behind (Tully is Marlo's maiden name, as we learn at the hospital). With this revelation comes an unraveling of sorts: we realize that all of those nights we thought Marlo had spent with Tully, she was really alone, acting out a fantasy that had no weight to it at all. And this ending — as “gotcha!” as it might feel to some — might be the most honest piece of the movie, perhaps even more so than the “raw” images of motherhood that we saw earlier.
During a time where more and more people are coming forward to lower the stigma surrounding postpartum depression, Tully, with its strange plot twist, provides a bridge to discussion of the emotional and mental challenges of parenting that stops short of ever offering a diagnosis or treatment. For many women, motherhood can truly feel like an identity crisis. The very act of becoming a parent is so defining, that it’s easy to divide your life into a “before” and an “after.” And sometimes it feels like you got left behind.
In a way, this is the part of motherhood that’s hardest to discuss openly. It’s one thing to talk about sleepless nights, or diaper blowouts that happen the second you’re trying to walk out the door. We can talk about those things because we all experience them. In a way, it’s a badge of honor, a task you have to complete before getting to the next stage of parenthood. Those are the things parents can bond over at a cocktail party; they're war stories.
But mothers aren’t "supposed to" wish we could go back in time. We’re not supposed to feel nostalgic for our pre-baby lives, to wish that we could disappear for a night to visit an old apartment, an ex-lover, a city that we used to call home. We’re not supposed to look at our children, and, despite all the love we have for them, feel like they took something from us that we’ll never be able to get back.
There’s a lot of shame in feeling this way. To admit any of this out loud would inevitably draw criticism or accusations that we don’t appreciate our children. And so, we shut those thoughts inside. We keep those emotions in, wonder if we’re normal for thinking this way, if other moms feel like this too. And as the third act of Tully unfolds, so does an important message: No matter how dark or guilt-ridden your thoughts might be, you are not alone.
Of course, there's a difference between longing for your pre-baby self and suffering from dangerous hallucinations, as Marlo seemed to be experiencing, reading the film strictly literally and leaving no room for, say, magic realism.
Given that, not all viewers came away with a positive reaction to Tully's unexpected ending.
Writer Sarah Whitman noted that she really wanted to see the film — until she learned about the plot twist in the third act. "As a mom who experienced severe anxiety during my first pregnancy and subsequent mild depression, I am disappointed," she wrote, adding that, in her opinion, Tully needs to come with a trigger warning.
Diana Spalding, Motherly's digital education editor, pointed out that Marlo wasn't likely suffering from postpartum depression, but rather, postpartum psychosis, a rare illness that occurs in approximately 1 to 2 out of every 1,000 deliveries.
"I am not sure if this was intentional, or if the film-makers did not realize that the character they created had PPP," Spalding wrote of the film, "Since they acknowledge that she has postpartum depression, though, I am surprised that they seem not to have consulted with a therapist to ensure that the topic was handled appropriately, whatever their intention was."
Writer Diablo Cody has revealed that she did not consult maternal mental health professionals while crafting Tully's script. In conversation with The New York Times, Cody explained: "I have had my own experiences and my own research," adding that she, a mother of three herself, has struggled with "mental health issues." But Cody also noted that one single film can't possibly tell everyone's story, commenting that "My heart goes out to anyone who’s dealt with this, honestly. Because it’s so ignored."
And as Cody told Romper in an exclusive interview, the decision not to label Marlo's condition was deliberate: "I think there is almost something comforting about a label and a diagnosis. I did not want there to be any comfort."
In its final moments, Tully delivers one last lesson. The penultimate scene showcases a rare moment of affection between Marlo and her middle son Jonah (at least, it seems rare to us, given the frustration and anxiety surrounding his character throughout most of the story). The film ends on a shot of Marlo with her husband Drew, who is arguably detached from much of her internal conflict. Together, they make their children’s lunches as they do every day, sharing a set of earbuds as the sun streams in through the kitchen window.
Maybe things will get better for Marlo. And maybe they won’t. But these final images are a reminder that within every darkness, there’s still a bit of light. Even during the lowest lows of motherhood, there is still, at the end of the day, love.
Check out Romper's new video series, Bearing The Motherload, where disagreeing parents from different sides of an issue sit down with a mediator and talk about how to support (and not judge) each other’s parenting perspectives. New episodes air Mondays on Facebook.