We all have our tipping point, and for me, that was when I failed to catch the super obvious reveal at the end of Tully. Stephanie and I left the theater ready to converse about this film’s weird use of mermaid imagery and that bum of a father only to awkwardly realize that only one of us paid attention, and that person was Stephanie. Actually, the more embarrassing truth is that I did pay attention, and I still missed the super obvious reveal.
Since I’ve already clarified that this review would be stuffed with spoilers, I’ll go ahead and spoil the twist. We find out that Marlo’s (Charlize Theron) night nanny for her newborn isn’t real—Tully (Mackenzie Davis) was in her head this whole time! But when we reach the hospital after Marlo’s drunk driving accident and the nurse asks about Marlo’s health, claiming she has been exhausted and depressed, I thought to myself, “Duh, she’s hanging out with Tully all night!” When we find out that Tully was Marlo’s maiden name, I thought, “Makes sense; she’s a symbol of Marlo’s life before children.” And when Tully appeared having incurred zero injuries after their car careened into a river and nobody seemed to say anything about her at all, I thought, “That’s weird, but okay.”
At some point in my conversation with Stephanie, it was clear that we were not on the same page. Stephanie finally, looking at me as though I too have been hallucinating that I have a new friend, informed me that Tully was not real. For whatever reason, this prompted me to question all of my life choices, including the choice to start a pop culture blog. I am now questioning my choice for writing about this embarrassing experience (at this point I’m not sure if I’m more embarrassed about misunderstanding the ending or of having such a large reaction to my misinterpretation) and in need of finding some way to transition into an actual review.
I think I’ve got it: This movie weirdly triggered some pretty big emotions and doubts that I’ve long kept at bay, and many people in the disability community are also finding it upsetting. We don’t see a plethora of movies about postpartum depression, which makes this movie’s famous cast, positive critical reception and even its mere existence important. Ultimately, I think this movie explores the struggles of motherhood in thoughtful ways.
I imagine I’m one of many people guilty of considering the first child a major life change and cause for celebration and looking at any additional children welcomed into the family as . . . just another kid. This movie offers a fresh insight into parenting as we see Marlo’s family worrying that she will experience the same mental health issues that occurred after her previous pregnancy. When she does give birth, the stress of raising a newborn while still taking care of two children takes a tremendous toll on her mentally and physically. It’s not hard to imagine why she would be longing for the days before children or questioning the direction of her life.
But the ending ties things up a little too neatly. After its revealed that the main character has been experiencing deep depression and hallucinations, you would expect the next scene to be at a treatment facility or psychiatrist’s office. Instead, the film ends with Marlo and her husband happily making their kids’ lunches . I don’t think the film is trying to imply that Marlo’s depression is cured, but it does suggest that she is on the path to a healthier lifestyle.
Mental health activists have loudly sounded off against this ending. The film seemed to take postpartum depression and the trials of motherhood seriously, but this ending undermines these efforts by providing a tidy resolution that fails to capture the real experiences of those living with depression. A car accident can be a wake-up call, but not some sort of weird replacement for therapy or potential cure.
But that’s not the only problem with this ending. Remember, they were happily making lunches, and more often than not, that is cause for concern. During their drunken late-night adventures, Tully at one point tells Marlo that she should want a boring, routine life, that this predictable domestic lifestyle is somehow rewarding. It appears that Marlo took this message to heart, even finding enjoyment in doing chores with her husband.
On one hand, I get it; taking care of your family is taxing, and finding joy in the little things and making time for your spouse is rewarding. However, it’s troubling to celebrate boring routines as the key to happiness. Can’t we have a drunken night in Bushwick to spice up a life of dishwashing and cooking? And is this misguided view of parenting being presented as the path to Marlo’s mental stability?
My goodness, there’s still problems! Sure, it’s nice to see that Marlo’s husband Drew (Ron Livingston) is making more of an effort to take care of his wife by the end of the film, but this comes after exceptional ineptitude throughout the entire movie. He has no interest in meeting the new nanny—and quite a few problems could’ve been solved if he did. He has little suspicion that there’s anything off with Marlo. Too absorbed in working hard during the day and playing video games at night, Drew is just the most useless father. To Livingston’s credit, he adds nuance that keeps this character from becoming a one-dimensional monster. There’s pain in his eyes that conveys the stress of his job and his awareness of his inability to take care of his family. Still, I would’ve appreciated a stronger indictment against his uselessness.
Then there are the mermaids. I get it; Marlo imagines mermaids at several points because they represent ideal beauty and femininity. Plus, do they even have kids? I mean, where would they come out? Their questionable procreation capacities and their graceful swimming in the open seas make mermaids a symbol of freedom. But just because a symbol makes sense doesn’t mean it’s necessary. There’s enough compelling material happening in the movie, particularly in the interactions between Marlo and Tully. The mermaids prove more of a distraction than anything else.
At this point, I’m sure you don’t expect a winning endorsement of Tully, but like I said, the relationship between Marlo and Tully is compelling. Throughout the film, I couldn’t figure them out. There’s an intimacy that is lovely but at times concerning. Was Tully going to strengthen the family or become a homewrecker? I guess the reveal at the end could be considered a cop out—the film didn’t know what to do with Tully, so she was reduced to a hallucination. But I don’t think this tarnished the film and served as an effective twist (for viewers who actually caught it). And though the film’s depiction of postpartum depression leaves a lot to be desired, it isn’t a complete failure. Plus, there is a win for disability in the portrayal of Marlo’s son’s autism and the stigma he experiences in education.
Ultimately, this film serves as writer Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman’s most mature film. Rather than rely on silly animation and contrived hip dialogue as they did with Juno, they provide a thoughtful character study without losing their signature cool.
Theron carries the film, creating a fully-realized character whose hope and pain resonates every moment she’s on screen. This isn’t a film for everyone, and it’s not one that I personally enjoyed, but I give it my blessing and hope for far better representations of postpartum depression in the future.
Cake rating: I don’t care of the cupcakes are decorated to look like Minions and made by a distressed mother of three—I need to eat all of them to get me over my embarrassment.
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