Motherhood: The Struggle is Real
Updated: May 29, 2018
Plot-twists are sexy. They’re the damsel that comes late to the ball, the janitor-cum-genius that breaks the code, the unsuspecting relative that proves to be the murderer all along. Yet with all good stories, conflict and companionship reign supreme. There’s no Turner without Hooch. There’s no Batman without the Joker. There’s no Anakin without Jar-Jar. (Okay, you might have to let me off on that last one, but you get the picture.) A hero needs a villain, a lover a rival. Stories are built in diametric. For every muscle-bound plot-twist that bides its stage time, in the wings there lurks the wily, slippery-tongued adversary that whispers sweet-nothings into the trustful ear. Sneaking in the shadows is the devil-horned red herring that makes the pay-off of a plot-twist so gratifying. They need each other. They want each other. And when one lacks the other, they both suffer for it.
Tully tells the story of Marlo (Charlize Theron), a New York suburbanite who has just given birth to her third child. Her husband, Drew (Ron Livingston) is loving and hard working but remains clueless about the demands of motherhood. When the baby is born Marlo’s brother, Craig (Mark Duplass), hires a night nanny by the name of Tully (Mackenzie Davis) to help Marlo handle the load. The relationship that ensues between Marlo and Tully expands far beyond the professional and reveals two like-minded people at different periods of their lives.
Thrust for the third time into the precarious balancing act of motherhood, Marlo is set up well in a film that does a sharp and discernible job of revealing patience and routine as the dominion of motherhood. Perhaps the films most laudable direction comes in a montage that plays out after the baby is born. From light-bulb switches to nappy changes and late-night cradling, the monotony and repetition of motherhood comes together in clockwork isolation. Motherhood is a solitary place, walled in by the ever-growing challenges and unexpected turns that the world presents. The film is spearheaded by a captivating performance from Charlize Theron with a setup that is almost faultless, carefully crafting the complexities of a struggle that is revealed more fully on screen than can be captured in words.
However, when Tully comes into their lives the momentum begins to subside. It is not for a lack of a strong performance from Mackenzie Davis. Davis creates a curious, unashamed character that provides an intriguing companion to Theron’s Marlo. She, in many ways, captures the “quirk” for which Marlo’s oldest son is criticized and demonstrates the enduring message that uncommonality is to be championed, not countered. Yet, as the relationship ripens it begins to sludge and stagnate. What opens as a promising dynamic ends up taking on an uncertain direction. The script hesitates down different paths but ultimate doesn’t fully embrace a captivating direction that the audience can get behind. When the ending twists its surprise the audience is left picking apart the clues in retrospect, short-changed by a lack of investment in the middle.
There are some particularly provocative sequences in the middle that figure to be frustratingly incomplete. When Tully seduces Drew in bed at the behest of Marlo and when the two women take a night trip to Brooklyn, the set up offers to take us in a direction that remains unsatisfied. As a result, the audience are never fully able to grapple with the relationship between Tully and Marlo and, indeed, with how Marlo’s relationship with her family changes.
The ending does bring a wonderful hindsight to the movie. It transforms the audience’s outlook on Marlo’s struggles and does a capable job of revealing the inner-battle of motherhood that is so rarely captured in such a raw manner on screen. Yet, one can’t help but think that, had a devilish red herring really taken ownership of the middle, perhaps the ending would have been heightened. Our curiosity is left wanting, and that’s why a return to the banal at the end does not quite sit right. If feels like the ride isn’t over.