‘Tully’ Delivers a Welcome Postpartum Digression

Whenever film director Jason Reitman encounters a loaded social problem (i.e., teenage pregnancy in “Juno,” corporate downsizing in “Up in the Air”) he greets it with a hug of cockeyed absurdism, a pat of understanding melancholy and then unpacks it, carefully.

That consoling, if resigned, tone is evident in “Tully,” a ruefully funny movie centered on the perennially pregnant Margo (Charlize Theron). She is expecting a third child even though (it is implied) for the better part of the past decade she has dodged postpartum depression in the way a novice surfer dodges waves during a tsunami. That is to say, unsuccessfully.

While the script from Diablo Cody (who wrote “Juno” and “Young Adult” for Reitman) is not likely to win any Mother of the Year awards, the perceptive performances of Theron and of Mackenzie Davis as Tully, the “night nanny” hired by Margo’s wealthy brother to lighten his sister’s load, are beautifully played.

Gradually Margo comes into focus as a once-wild thing resisting domestication, a onetime beauty dissociating from a body that no longer belongs to her. By the time she gives birth for the third time, her older two children have sucked the life out of her. Then the newborn suckles what remains. Given Margo’s round-the-clock mothering, she has no time to recognize herself or space to recognize her anger. Maybe she pushes everyone (including her husband, played by Ron Livingston) away because she’s trying to re-establish her own physical and emotional boundaries?

When Tully arrives, radiating calm and resembling a younger, prenatal version of Margo, the older woman relaxes quicker than tense muscles in a hot bath. Tully, 26, fit and androgynously beautiful, asks Margo about herself—a subject Margo hasn’t considered since her 8-year-old daughter was born. Mourning her youth, Margo confides to Tully, “Your 20s are great, but then your 30s come around the corner like a garbage truck at 5 a.m.”

As Tully incrementally assumes Margo’s place at the assembly line of domestic duties—the meal-making, the laundry, the housecleaning—Margo achieves a needed critical distance. She can see colors again. She can see how the delayed development of her 6-year-old son—and her refusal to acknowledge his deficits—have put her on overload. She can see how a prior unresolved relationship (with a woman, it is implied) intrudes between her and her husband. None of these insights would be possible without the gentle questions and observations of Tully, whose earnestness and insight seem too good to be true. Just when Tully is indispensable, her month with Margo is over.

How can Margo internalize Tully, this young doula who gives her such needed emotional and physical support? How can she replace this patient nurse who reminds Margo that children and spouses aren’t chores to be checked off to-do lists but surprise packages to be opened and enjoyed?

The movie’s answer probably is different from mine or yours—or Margo’s, for that matter. But for a movie that announces itself a satire on how Americans outsource parenthood, I loved its implication that the birth of a baby can precipitate the rebirth of self as well as that of a marriage.

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