A heartbreaking tribute to the work mothers do

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Tully (M). Director: Jason Reitman. Starring: Charlize Theron, Mackenzie Davis, Ron Livingston, Mark Duplass, Elaine Tan. 96 minutes

Charlize Theron in TullyVarious analyses of the 2016 Census data pointed out that in Australia, women remain disadvantaged by the amount of unpaid domestic housework they do. Reported the Conversation in April 2017, 'the typical Australian woman spends between five and 14 hours a week doing unpaid domestic housework', compared with less than five hours for the typical Australian man. 'These gender gaps linger over time and widen even further when children enter the picture.'

When it comes to the unpaid labour of caring for children, Tully makes no bones about the 'labour' part. In its opening sequence, Marlo (Theron) spends countless minutes on a daily ritual, systematically brushing the skin of her son Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica). Jonah, described frequently by family outsiders as 'quirky', has a number of behavioural problems related to oversensitivity to external stimuli, and a therapist has expressed the hope that this routine will help to soothe him.

As the film commences, Marlo is heavily pregnant, and lately on maternity leave. Her household is divided along conventional gender lines; her husband Drew (Livingston) is the 'breadwinner' and is frequently away for work, leaving Marlo with the lion's share of looking after the household and their two children. There are hints that after Jonah's birth Marlo had suffered from post-natal depression; the occasional distant expression on her face suggests that it never quite left her (Theron does a masterful job of tapping into the character's troubled depths).

Once their third child, Mia, is born, 'labour' takes on a whole new meaning. A montage portrays Marlo's daily life as a looping sequence of tasks that are exhausting in their repetitiveness and mundaneness. It culminates with the sight of her sitting at the dinner table with her children, looking harried and drained. When Drew arrives home from work, his first act is to chastise her for allowing the children to use their 'screens' while eating dinner.

He doesn't mean it as an attack, any more than her daughter intends to insult her when moments later she asks the until-recently pregnant Marlo incredulously, 'What happened to your body?' But Marlo is by this point nothing if not thick-skinned; we've seen her negotiate all manner of indignities, from a stranger's disapproval at her drinking a decaf latte while pregnant, to the well-meaning but condescending principal of Jonah's school wondering if the eccentric child is a 'good fit'.

The creative pairing of director Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody (Juno, Young Adult) thus once again proves adept at locating humour and trauma in everyday human experience. They cement the viewer in Marlo's perspective, and gently mock those around her who clearly don't get it; by lampooning, for example, the privileged life of her wealthy brother Craig (Duplass) and sister-in-law Elyse (Tan) (on their daughter's upcoming talent show: 'What's her talent?' 'Pilates').

 

"When it comes to the unpaid labour of caring for children, Tully makes no bones about the 'labour' part."

 

It is Craig who, recalling Marlo's troubles after Jonah's birth, offers to pay for a night nanny after Mia is born. Marlo is hesitant, but begins to reconsider as she gets further worn down by the demands of caring for, in particular, Mia and Jonah. The arrival of Tully (Davis) in her life does seem to make a difference, as the younger woman helps care for Mia and also reminds Marlo of the importance of caring for herself. But is Tully what she seems? Without giving too much away, there is a reason her free-spiritedness defies credulity.

Tully is a funny film, with a serious core: a tribute to the labour of child rearing, a dissection of the substantial physical and emotional burden of this work, and a 'show-don't-tell' critique of the social norms that frequently sees that burden fall, still, primarily on women. At one stage Drew — likeable but negligent, mostly through a lack of awareness — is chagrined that Marlo had left their children 'alone' in the house. 'But weren't you there?' another character asks. Yes, he was.

 

 

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is the editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Jason Reitman, Charlize Theron, Mackenzie Davis, Ron Livingston, Mark Duplass, Diablo Cody


 

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This film could not have been structured as it was in a world that knew nothing but atheism. If the universe truly was atheistic, death would be a criminal waste of the nutrition of thought.
Roy Chen Yee | 17 May 2018


I was invited by a new first time mum to accompany her to see this film. I knew nothing about it and wondered at the time why it was being presented (free tickets on invitation) to a whole theatre packed with new mum's and their babies. I'm so grateful I saw it in this way, as a skilled lactation consultant and one of her business partners held the atmosphere and concerns around the film with before and after conversations. The trigger ... Psychosis - was very confronting and definitely not funny (this film is advertised as a comedy) was brilliantly handled by these two women fronting the new mum's group ... It is a confronting film with funny bits in it ... But it's a life-threatening situation and needs to be seen as such. More men need to see this film in a similar way ... With guidance re its message. Interestingly, the mothers attending the film were all counter-cultural in their support for the women leading the conversation ... They invite mums to love their children first over and above societal expectations and rules ... Something increasingly hard to do in a world that treats people and things as commodities. I'd love to see more men stepping up to see the value of love first and foremost when a new life enters their world. There's so much to learn from this film. It was painfully brilliant!
Mary Tehan | 19 May 2018


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