Monday, May 7, 2018

Review: "Tully" Captures a More Personal and Funny Side to Being a Parent

Scene from Tully
If for no other reason than her Oscar win, writer Diablo Cody likely will never escape her debut script Juno. Its divisive use of flowery language both made her a distinctive voice and one whose grating presence felt false. No matter how many films she's made since, there's that legacy to overcome. With her latest Tully, it feels like a film that has multiple layers. On the surface, it's a personal story of motherhood that captures the struggles in ways that could only come from first hand experience. There's a defeated quality to the language, as if raising children are a metaphorical black hole. However, it's also a return to the world of children and pregnancy for Cody that sees her commenting not only on the parent's experience, but the naive one represented in title character Tully (Mackenzie Davis), whose youth and wealth of knowledge are reminiscent of a more scholarly Juno character. It's a film that may as well be about Cody's career, both on screen and off. It's the battle of one persona, and it's also her best work since 2007. 


Before the film thinks to introduce Marlo (Charlize Theron) properly, there is a moment that will determine how much you enjoy the movie. It's a scene in which she brushes the arms of her child, with a thoughtful smile on her face. It's an act so niche that most parents probably will never do it. Still, it's one that shows a specificity that will bleed into the other details. Parenting doesn't always make sense, and there's a good chance that most concepts in the film will go over heads if babies are a foreign concept. Still, it's that moment of happiness portrayed in one odd act that captures the film perfectly. You don't need to understand what is going on to understand that motherhood is hard, and it's sometimes best to receive small moments of joy in these bizarre victories.

Of course there's Marlo, the mother of three whose very appearance seems worn out not just by a screaming child, but by the hidden judgment that society gives her. So what if she wants a coffee while she's pregnant? It's her life and she needs that extra boost of energy. Still, people roll their eyes, creating a sense of superiority over his woman whose body is even criticized by her children. She doesn't have a free moment and even the stare in Theron's eyes create a scathing hostility towards them. It's one of anger but also of jealousy, created from being near 40 and not having the physical energy of the joggers in the park. She desperately wants to be young, but all she do is tear out hairs and pray for her family to not get the violent outburst that she's harboring at all times. She's helpless, knowing that a child cannot control their emotions but still wanting to have them behave.

The presence of Tully turns the film into a fairy tale of sorts, especially recalling mermaid stories as Tully takes care of Marlo's children during the late hours. There's an enviable optimism and energy to her that is at first distressing but eventually becomes the bond towards youth. Tully expresses a naivety towards parenting that is sweet and likely formatted after Hallmark Channel movies. What follows is a clash between the cynicism of Marlo's aging into discomfort and Tully's optimistic worldview. It's a struggle of motherhood that feels real in part because it's not about abusing children. It's about overcoming a depression that society gives mothers, not understanding that their struggles are to control tornadoes of energy on an hourly basis. It's exhausting, and the feeling of self-worth slowly dissipates as time goes on.

Tully is a film written from experience. Cody has been a mother so any offhand remark comes from a place of sincerity along with harsh criticism. There's no doubt that the characters that she writes loves their families, but there's also the sense that it's creating new struggles for the self. It's an issue to be as great as the moms who regularly populate bake sales, or always seem to have every hair in order. Those are the women that are held up as ideal. Even for a chameleon like Theron (who just last year was busting down doors in Atomic Blonde), there is a certain disgust with her body. It's something inevitable in pregnancy, and Theron captures an accuracy that adds so much more to her overall performance. She isn't only acting depressing and frustrated, anyone who has felt that they look dumpy and spat upon by loved ones would probably look like Marlo. A mother's love is unconditional for a reason. It has to be for the sake of a child who probably will never know how hard it was to not be embarrassed by them.

Even more impressive is the idea that Tully is a counterpart to Juno that also happens to be a more polished, mature version of a similar story. Whereas her 2007 film relied upon pop culture references and Kimya Dawson numbers, Tully relies upon a struggle to care about anything superfluous. There's a desperation to not just be an old person out of touch with the world. There's a tragedy to forgetting all of the fun, pointless information that comes with life. This film recognizes the harsh realities of learning what matters, and how much the nonsense seems both romantic and awful. Still, it's better than having teachers sugarcoat a report on a special needs kid with the word "quirky,"which is just another of the many struggles that Marlo faces in a quasi-horror film sort of way. The horror comes not from a child being terrible, but the surprise that the mother doesn't turn into Jason Vorhees.

It's a great film that captures the complexity of motherhood in a shameless and honest manner. While it may have issues appealing to audiences that are kid-free, there's still a realism to it all that speaks to what the parents are feeling at any moment. There is that sense that children are great, but only when they want to be. Instead, it's a wonder of when gratification will come and how old will you be when it does. Tully is about the emotional fragility of a parent who simply wants a break while also showing Cody challenge herself as a writer. It's not as flashy, but it has more of a profound subtext throughout that gives the whole story a deeper resonance. For any of its faults, Tully is a movie that is likely to sting those who know too well what's going on, and how weird it must look from the outside. 

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