The complexities of motherhood are explored in a new film, writes Philippa Hawker
For director Jason Reitman, his partnership with screenwriter Diablo Cody is a source of pleasure, wonder and a kind of envy. He’s amazed by the depth, the surprises and the speed of her writing, he says. With his new film, Tully, he says, she rang him for a chat and a two-sentence pitch about an idea — and the screenplay was in front of him almost before he knew it. “She writes fast, and it comes out complicated and ready. She wrote it in about six weeks, she just sits down and does it. It takes me years to write a screenplay. And then she trusts me with it.”
Tully is their third collaboration, and the second time the pair has created a work in which Charlize Theron plays the lead. Their first film together — his second feature — was Juno (2007), the sharply observed tale of a pregnant teenager and a couple planning to adopt.
Cody and Reitman joined forces again for Young Adult (2012), in which Theron plays a combative, troubled ex-prom queen returning to her home town to seek a reunion with her high-school boyfriend, who she regarded as the love of her life.
Now, in Tully, Theron is Marlo, a woman of 40 about to give birth to her third child. As she prepares to go on maternity leave, she’s on edge and unsettled: she feels judged, and she often is. There are trace elements of caffeine in that, a disapproving woman tells her as she conscientiously orders a decaf. She has a meltdown when the principal at the private kindergarten suggests her volatile young son, Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica), might be better off elsewhere.
Things only get more frantic and unsettled after her daughter is born. She’s having difficulty keeping her equilibrium, until she takes advantage of a suggestion from her well-heeled brother (Mark Duplass). He proposes she hire a night nanny, a young woman who arrives in the middle of the night and helps her — not only with looking after her newborn and dealing with exhaustion but also with every conceivable problem and issue. It’s a relationship that begins to renew Marlo’s strength and confidence; yet there’s more to the young woman, Tully (Mackenzie Davis), than meets the eye.
“Something I love about Diablo’s writing is that the macro topic may be something that is traditional, like pregnancy or parenthood,” Reitman says, “but her approach is always unusual, she’s always finding a nuanced way in, and she’s always introducing us to a character we have never seen before.”
Cody never writes with specific actors in mind, but Reitman says it was inevitable that he would take the screenplay to Theron. “Charlize and I had such good chemistry making Young Adult, and I completely adored the process of working with her. All our conversations are about the right things: all that is said about her being brave is true. She’s fearless in her approach and her search for authenticity and realism within all the flaws of a character is unmatched by any actor I’ve worked with. And she has a very sneaky sense of humour.”
The film never gives a name to what’s troubling Marlo, and it doesn’t append a label to Jonah and his behaviour.
“Whatever he is experiencing I think really just acts as a metaphor for all the ways that our children are imperfect,” Reitman says. “We as parents can approach this in one of two ways: we can say, ‘There’s something I need to fix about my children’; and then there’s another way, that is: ‘I recognise the unique differences and flaws in my child that are reminiscent of the unique flaws in me, and we’re all complicated people.’ Part Mackenzie Davis, left, as Tully and Charlize Theron as Marlo in Tully, top; writer Diablo Cody with Theron and director Jason Reitman, above of Marlo’s journey is to escape from the attitude at the private school that her son needs to be fixed rather than understood.” For that matter, he says, this is also true of Marlo: she needs to escape from the same assumptions. Cody’s scripts are always about more than their overt subject matter, he says. “With Juno the presumption was that the movie was about teen pregnancy, but you find out that’s just a location to have a larger conversation about the moment we grow up, whether you’re a teenager who’s growing up too fast or a 30year-old man who’s not grown up at all, or a 30year-old woman who couldn’t think of herself as a grown-up until she had a child.” Tully is — comically and incisively — about the specificities of a situation, but it also deals with a universal malaise, he says. “The presumption is that this is a movie about motherhood, but motherhood is a location where we can have a conversation about what it feels like to be alone, and how scary it is when you’re only allowed to project to the world the sense that you have your shit together, and that you have an answer for every question.” opens on Thursday.