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Domestic crisis

Charlize Theron as Marlo (Focus Features)

Movies

Domestic crisis

In Tully, a frazzled mom grapples with feelings of failure and loss

When I first saw director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody’s 2011 collaboration Young Adult, I spent weeks mulling over it. In the years since, I’ve thought of it often. Mainly because it’s one of the few offerings in American pop culture to examine the grotesque tragedy of arrested adolescence.

In that movie, which starred Charlize Theron, 30-something Mavis has achieved none of the milestones that typically attend adulthood. She has no husband, no children, and serves no one else with the greater freedom of her singleness. Beautiful, with a seemingly glamorous job, she’s really a twisted, pitiable person whose life is entirely self-focused.

In Tully, Reitman and Cody have teamed up for a third time (the first was on the excellent Juno) to examine the issue of maturity from the other side of the coin. Pregnant, 40-something mom Marlo (Theron) does almost nothing but serve others. This is one of the few movies that knows how to use a montage—not as shorthand for plot or character development but to illustrate relentless sameness.

Marlo is in a rut. She’s in one of the deepest ruts a person can get into—the exhausting, day-in and day-out repetitiveness of caring for a newborn while simultaneously trying to give her other two children and husband the attention they need. And she’s doing it in a messy house with spills on the carpet and sticky smears on the walls that she doesn’t have the time or energy to do anything about even though they make her feel like a failure. When someone tells her she’s a good mom, she scoffs, “Good moms volunteer for class parties and make cupcakes shaped like Minions.”

It’s not even clear that Marlo has postpartum depression. Her sadness goes deeper, as she discovers when Tully (Mackenzie Davis), the night nanny her wealthy brother hires for her, arrives on her doorstep like a Zen millennial Mary Poppins.

As she forms an unlikely friendship with 26-year-old Tully, Marlo begins to realize that she’s not just tired, she’s in mourning for other routes her life might have taken, for the other Marlos she might have been. Along with realistic breastfeeding, most of the film’s R rating comes from Marlo’s increasingly bad language and the way she anesthetizes her pain with a steady diet of trashy reality television. Thanks to a late plot twist, an odd bedroom encounter that doesn’t include nudity turns out not to be as salacious as it at first seems.

While all of this will understandably keep many Christians away, it’s fascinating how much Biblical wisdom is nonetheless contained within this profane, at times painfully authentic picture of depressed midlife. Christians might particularly ponder just how much the Bible’s warning not to give up meeting together should be viewed as a mental and emotional health prescription rather than a command.

Unfortunately, a clunky revelation near the end of the film feels like a cop-out that fails to offer a long-term remedy to Marlo’s feelings of loss. But then, what can a filmmaker who doesn’t know the substance of eternal hope offer a character like her?  

Cody and Reitman do as they have in previous films—honor selflessness, maturity, and (more subtly) the sanctity of life, even when it pops up unexpectedly in your 40s. Tully tells Marlo that the very thing that makes her feel invisible and purposeless—her steady, menial, uncelebrated presence in her family members’ lives—is exactly what they will cherish one day. And yet Marlo’s vague sense that her life is leaking away in headaches and worry can’t be brushed aside so easily.

The finiteness of our time on earth—our sadness over wasted potential, deferred dreams, and options narrowing as we grow older—is part of what makes the promise of heaven so precious to the Christian. Only there will we at last be all that we might have been.