The Reelist is a column featuring Kristen Page-Kirby’s musings on movies. For Washington Post critic Michael O’Sullivan’s review of “Tully,” click here.
The labor scene in “Tully” is quick. It’s a minute, maybe a minute and a half. Push, push, baby cry, yay!
Oh, wait. Sorry. That’s the childbirth scene in “Tully.” The labor lasts the entire movie. For many women, it lasts our entire lives.
At the beginning of “Tully,” Marlo (Charlize Theron), already a mother of two young children, has reached that level of pregnancy where you’re so huge the only thing that would make you comfortable would be to somehow break the bonds of gravity and just float for a while. After the baby is born, Marlo reluctantly accepts the gift of Tully, a night nanny (Mackenzie Davis) paid for by her brother. (Tully shows up at night and brings the baby to Marlo for nursing, but otherwise handles all the late-night duties that most moms do on their own while wishing their snoring partners would suffocate in their sleep.)
Writer Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman, who teamed up for “Juno” and “Young Adult,” haven’t lost their knack for unflinching but caring looks at difficult situations, and Theron (who starred in “Young Adult”) is unflinchingly real in a depiction of motherhood we don’t often see, even though many women are living it.
While men as a whole have come so far in terms of child rearing and doing their share of household work instead of “helping” with it, there is still a huge disparity in terms of keeping a household running. (I’m framing this in the context of straight relationships; I have no idea if and how same-sex couples face this issue.) It’s wonderful if a dad changes all the diapers — but who notices when the diapers are running low, then puts “diapers” on the shopping list, then goes to Target and picks up not only the diapers, but the pacifiers the baby likes because the dog ate one oh and we’re also low on cereal and toothpaste and the older kid needs colored pencils for her science fair project which means it’s time to head to Michaels and get one of those science fair project board things?
(Hey, dads: What’s your child’s pediatrician’s name? When is the next checkup due?)
Marlo’s experiences capture how handling the daily minutiae of running a household can feel like water torture, and how adding an infant increases the drip-drip-drip of piano lessons and dental appointments and permission slips. Her husband, Drew (Ron Livingston), is clearly involved; he packs the kids’ lunches and supervises their homework, genuine contributions to the household. And it’s clear he’d do more if Marlo asked. It’s just that asking can feel like failing; asking for help getting a “real” dinner on the table means admitting you can’t get a real dinner on the table, so it’s frozen pizza again. (Marlo also puts some microwaved broccoli out. To serve just pizza would make her a bad mom.) Drew wants to help, but hesitates because he assumes this is her territory and presumably doesn’t want to intrude. It’s as though he can see that Marlo might be drowning, but he’s waiting for her to ask him to toss her the life preserver.
(Another question for you dads: Will last year’s bathing suit fit, or does your kid need a new one?)
There is a reason the school nurse calls Marlo’s cellphone first when it’s time to discuss her son’s behavior in school — and there’s a reason she listed her number first on the emergency contact list, and it’s the same reason she was probably the one filling out the emergency contact form in the first place. How much of women’s work is assumed, rather than asked for, is at the center of “Tully.” And since we’re not asked to do these jobs, we have no chance to say no.
(Last question: When you walk by a stopped dryer that has clean clothes in it, what is the correct response?)
“Tully” is, in part, about what happens when a mom’s burden gets lifted just a little. What it really gets right is how heavy that burden is in the first place.
More Reelists from Kristen Page-Kirby