Well, I take it back.
I went to see Tully after criticizing it so much, quoting blogs and articles from colleagues in my field. I was disturbed, however by the turn towards favorable comments I was reading as more people went to see it, and that's what prompted me to go. Having seen it, I really haven’t changed my mind. My initial review is here.
There will be spoilers in this review. Be warned.
And here is problem #1. Why is there a plot twist and spoiler?
This is a story of a postpartum woman’s psychosis. Why is it marketed as a comedy? While it isn't funny, it could easily be heartwarming to a good segment of today’s mothers. Perhaps my fore knowledge of the plot informed my grave sense of danger in the last quarter of the movie, but no viewer will doubt that something is disturbingly wrong when Tullly’s behavior becomes erratic. And the descent into madness is hardly an untouchable subject. Dramas like Ordinary People, The Fisher King, Girl Interrupted, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest have all portrayed mental illness in poignant, truthful, and powerful ways. Is a mother’s postpartum story not worthy of such a portrayal?
Which leads to problem #2: What, exactly, is being portrayed?
Marlo’s son is very clearly neuro-atypical. He’s acting out and has a history of behavior that is repeatedly called “quirky.” I don’t recall if his age is mentioned, but why was there no mention -- like what I hear often in my community of fellow mothers with elementary-age children -- of sensory processing, or neuropsych testing, or spectrum, or ADHD? Some term to ground the viewer? Maybe the viewer has seen mothers in public with out of control children, and those mothers have felt the judgemental gaze of people who pass by. In fact, the viewer might even be that mother.
Marlo’s brother provides the generous and loving gift of a night nanny, alluding to a difficult time she had after her son was born. I wish he had just said she was depressed. Or sad. Or pointed out something like: she didn’t have the energy to care for her baby, or she wept frequently, or she was quite irritable, or she was sleep deprived to the point of irrationality. Marlo’s doctor, towards the end of the movie, states that Marlo is extremely sleep deprived and severely dehydrated. Marlo was far more than that. And she was far more than depressed, if that's what she was after her son was born. Marlo was psychotic. She also could have possibly been manic.
All of this would have created a sympathetic character and an emotional drama (see problem #1 above), and perhaps would have thrown in some education, too. But maybe that wasn’t the point of the movie. Maybe the point of the movie was to grab an unsuspecting, ripe audience on Mom’s Night Out, and shock them. (Note: my first word choice was not shock but prey).
Then there's problem #3: to whom is this movie going to appeal? Tully is yet another portrayal of middle class white life that is meant to be seen as Everyman - or Everymom, in the case of this movie. I won’t deny that there are elements of this movie that I, a middle class, educated mother, can relate to. As a professional in the field of maternal emotional well-being, my client base would probably relate, as well. Resources and financial stability (even though Marlo’s family wasn’t especially wealthy) do not shield mothers from the judgement of strangers, nor the burden of being the chef, launderer, shopper, and all around manager for household and family responsibilities, duties which which largely fall on the shoulders of mothers, both SAHM and Working.
The New Yorker Magazine review addresses the interesting casting of Tully. The only actors of color in this movie are antagonists to Marlo. Critic Richard Brody states that he doubts Reitman’s casting of “Tully” was "intentionally skewed to suggest that bureaucrats and technocrats of color stifle white people’s emotional authenticity and vitality; I think that he simply didn’t see what he was doing—and that his own lack of perspective mirrors that of the script." Criticism around predominantly white Hollywood is well reported: #OscarsSoWhite was a real thing, and the excitement around movies like Hidden Figures, Black Panther, A Wrinkle in Time, Moonlight and their box office earnings reflect the long wait that diverse audiences have had in seeing themselves on a major motion picture screen. The casting of Tully is like a lateral step in the status quo, if not a step backwards.
Why does it matter? Personally, I’ll tell you that I certainly understood Marlo’s exhaustion and the relentless sense that she was failing. I was depressed, and I had intrusive thoughts that were terrifying. I altered my behavior in order to avoid those intrusive thoughts from becoming a reality. But here’s something that Marlo didn’t experience: racism. If implicit bias is an easier term to swallow, then fine; implicit bias.
How does race play into this? What is the thing that no one would ever say to Marlo? In real life -- not in my intrusive thoughts -- people commented in one way or another that my baby was white, and I was not. My Filipino family would describe her cuteness as puti, which means white. A woman at the park, white like most of my circles are, observed me with my daughter. She leaned over to me with a hopeful smile, and said, nodding to my daughter, “Do you work full time for her family? I would love a caregiver as attentive as you are to her.” Another time, I ran down the street on a spontaneous trip to Walgreens for diapers, baby on my hip. It was a summer day, and she was wearing one of those cute little dresses that have matching bloomers, but I forgot to put the bloomers on her. In order to grab my wallet and pay for the package of diapers, I took my baby off my hip and set her on the cash register counter. The man behind me in line scolded me: “Her disgusting diaper is on that counter. I doubt that baby’s mother would approve of you putting her on the counter, which is probably dirtier than that diaper.”
One of my recurrent intrusive thoughts was of my baby, naked in a pile up with other naked babies, and I couldn't tell her apart from the other babies. That vision left me so afraid that I would lose her that I rarely let her go. I joined a moms group, a baby music class, and I had friends with similarly aged babies. These gatherings would default into a circle, moms sitting so we could all see one another and chat, babies laid down in front of us on blankets. I was afraid to take my hand off my baby, to get up and be one of those breezy moms who says to the woman next to her: “Watch my baby for a sec?” while I ran to the bathroom or got a coffee. In the circle, I often opted to nurse or cradle her, or change her diaper -- so that I wouldn’t lose track of her. But maybe she wasn't mine to lose, anyway, since we didn't look like one another, and every one noticed it. And that, right there, is the descent into illness.
I have learned, professionally and personally, that the fear of not recognizing your own baby is not an uncommon one. But racism adds another layer, and it gave my intrusive thoughts its own signature. Marlo is not Everymom, no matter how much the experience of a white mom is sold to us as Everymom. Race and class have their role in postpartum mental illness; sometimes they weave together, and sometimes they don’t. Let’s look at the different experiences of many mothers. There is room for all of us on the big screen, if we really care about maternal mental health and postpartum quality of life.
Tully was not an unlikeable movie, and Marlo is certainly a sympathetic character. It’s just not a comedy. Dead stop. Instead, it’s a movie that joins the canon of movies that don’t recognize people of color and their stories as part of the fabric of a universal experience. And in trying to be a comedy with a plot twist, it bears the responsibility of a missed chance to engage women on a level that could really make a difference in maternal mental health.