At first glance, Tully looks like another film that makes parenting – specifically motherhood – seem mundane and miserable. There are plenty of moments in the film where kids are kicking the backs of car seats and babies are crying, but Tully says there is another truth about motherhood that gives the mundane a meaning.
Marlo (Charlize Theron) is about to give birth to her third child, and is on the verge of an emotional breakdown. The house is always trashed, she makes frozen meals for dinner every night and says she looks like an “abandoned trash barge.” Those closest to her often remark that they “wish they had her back.” Marlo’s depression is so consistent that she’s given up trying to fix it any more. She falls asleep watching Gigolos by herself and isn’t bothered by a non-existent sex life with her husband. Until Tully makes an effort to connect with Marlo, her genuine fears and joys about having a family remain dormant behind eyes that have lost their spark. This inability to share the depths of her feelings stops her from fully embracing her children as a mother and her husband as a wife.
Her husband Drew (Ron Livingston) wants to help her, but doesn’t know how. He provides for the family, but instead of spending time with Marlo and the kids after work, he plays video games with his friends until he falls asleep. Despite having little screen time, Drew’s character is an important one for the audience’s ability to relate to Marlo and the rest of the family. Not everyone has experienced motherhood or crippling depression, but everyone has experienced not knowing how to help someone they care about. Drew’s passivity as a husband is not because he doesn’t care about Marlo, but because he doesn’t know how to care for her, which keeps them from connecting in the mundane routines of life.
Marlo has two children, but the film focuses primarily on her son, Jonah. Jonah has ambiguous “emotional issues” and often acts up both at home and in the classroom. During a meeting with the school, the principal says that he is “quirky” and that their school is “not the right fit.” Even though Jonah is difficult for Marlo, she recognizes that they are kindred spirits. Neither of them can connect well with others, and since no one knows how to help them, they stop trying to help. She does not see him as a problem, she sees him as her son, but doesn’t know how to help.
In the midst of Marlo’s personal and familial turmoil, her rich brother and his wife offer her a lifeline: a night nanny to watch her newborn, Mia. After initially refusing her brother’s offer – saying she doesn’t need any help – Marlo quickly realizes taking care of Mia is too much for her and she accepts their night nanny offer. That night the nanny, Tully (Mackenzie Davis), arrives. She’s a young woman constantly quoting literature and bubbling with life. She knows exactly how to take care of Mia the way Marlo wants her to. Tully shows and tells Marlo that she believes in taking care of the “whole person.” Even though her only job is to take care of the baby at night, she can see that Marlo needs much more than that, even if Marlo’s not able to admit it to herself. Soon after meeting, Tully asks Marlo about her life as a mother and wife, revealing what she loves about her family and the areas where she feels that she falls short. Tully does what no else is willing to do for Marlo: connect with her mundane life.
On top of being the catalyst for Marlo’s growth, Tully could also be considered a representation of Marlo’s ideal self. She’s beautiful, goes out of her way to serve others, and has a deep reverence for the small details of life. Tully embraces both the reality that most of life is mundane, and that mundane moments are beautiful when we experience them with those that we love. Tully also knows that if she does not figure out how to connect with others, they will never know how important they are to her. This lesson is the great gift Tully gives to Marlo. There is nothing Tully does that makes Marlo love her family more or less, Tully simply pulls those truths out of Marlo and inspires her to express them. Connection is not possible without communication.
Whenever Marlo does open up about her family life, Tully’s relational advice is never to participate in the self-indulgence of Bad Moms or the self-discovery of Eat, Pray, Love. Instead she encourages Marlo to press into her relationships with her husband and kids and rediscover the immense love she has for them. Her love has not gone away; her ability to connect and share that love is what’s been missing. Marlo realizes that her personal exile into loneliness and her distance from her family are no longer going to work. She has to press in and change.
As she presses into connecting with her family, she and Jonah have their first deep conversation. Towards the end of the film, Marlo is brushing Jonah’s body –a type of calming therapy she found on YouTube. It’s one of the few times that Jonah is able to be totally calm. In the middle of the brushing, Marlo asks Jonah if he enjoys the brushing and he says, “Yes, because I like being near you… could we do this without the brush?” After years of being misunderstood by everyone, the mundane routine of brush therapy leads to a moment of discovery. They realize not that they need to be near each other, but how they need to be near each other.
Tully doesn’t say motherhood or being in a family is easy. It’s often difficult, and relationships can be strained by the smallest of obstacles, especially the internal ones we don’t know how to share. But Tully does say that mundane moments can lead to a beautiful connection with one’s family, and those connections are worth wading through the mundane.