I’m going to try to be careful about spoilers in writing this, but depending on how sensitive one is to such things the safest course may be to not read this piece before seeing the movie.
I had read only a little bit about Tully and seen the trailer before watching it, and I did not at all anticipate the main twist that raises the spoiler issue. Maybe that means I’m not very perceptive about such things and most viewers are better at seeing that kind of thing coming, I don’t know, but I’m glad I wasn’t tipped off about it in advance. Had I been, certainly that would have affected the way I experienced the movie, very likely adversely.
So that has made me think about how I want to structure this piece. What I’ve decided to do is to first write about the movie as it developed prior to the main surprise plot twist. That is, give some thoughts and reactions concerning the first 80%-90% of the film as if it had simply ended at that point.
Even after that, I will try to keep my remarks about the closing segment of the film and how it in effect changes almost everything that came before fairly general and unrevealing.
Tully is the story of Marlo (I wasn’t sure until I looked it up later if they were saying “Marlo” as in Marlo Thomas, or “Merlot” as in the wine, as it is pronounced both ways by different characters) and her family. Marlo is a middle-aged suburban woman with a husband Drew (somewhat generic, mostly seems like a decent guy, helps modestly with the child care but no more than that because he has to put a great deal of time into his job), a daughter Sarah in elementary school (fairly generic also; in terms of how much of a handful she is and what problems she has, she’s probably about average for her age or leans toward the easy side), and a son Jonah in kindergarten (let’s talk about him in more detail below). She is pregnant when the movie opens, and gives birth to a daughter Mia in the course of the story.
Marlo is overwhelmed. Raising three young children would be more than a full time job for her regardless, but Jonah makes the task probably more like raising five or six.
I don’t recall Jonah’s condition being named in the film, but as it happens it’s something I’m familiar with because someone who is very dear to me has raised a son who—from what she has recounted to me—is very similar to Jonah. I don’t recall if she named the condition to me either, beyond that it is somewhere on the autism “spectrum.” Indeed, it took many, many years and many doctors before the condition was diagnosed, and even then it was identified in a more vague way than one would like.
The main behavioral symptom of the condition is that the child has more, and more severe, tantrums than most children, and is highly oversensitive and especially prone to explode into a tantrum like that if touched. My friend described how even something like brushing his teeth or combing his hair was an ordeal for her son, that he screamed and carried on like it caused him excruciating pain. She got to where she could do such grooming things for him in a way that didn’t cause such agony (better than he could do them for himself), but it wasn’t until he was well into elementary school that he reached a level of trust and comfort with any other person (her mother, his grandmother) that they could touch him like that.
As it was ultimately explained to her, and as she later explained it to me—and I’m not sure how speculative all this is or if it’s hardcore, proven science—it’s some kind of neurological issue that renders the brain unable to prioritize sense stimuli.
That is, when there are multiple sights, sounds, smells, tactile sensations, etc. available to us, we have to attend to some and ignore others. How well we do this varies from person to person and from circumstances to circumstances, but it’s a constant necessity of life. I would guess I’m about average at it. I know, for instance, that if I’m trying to read a book or magazine in a restaurant that has a TV on that I can hear, I really struggle with that, but I wouldn’t say I struggle particularly badly across the board when there are multiple stimuli present. Like in that same restaurant, I’m probably not going to be distracted from my reading by my awareness of dishes and silverware being moved about, a low hum of conversation in the distance whose words I can’t discern, the way the chair feels against my body as I sit at my table, etc. I can tune out the vast majority of such sense impressions reasonably well most of the time in order to attend to what I’m trying to attend to.
But evidently for someone like her son or like Jonah, their brain frantically tries to attend to everything roughly equally, so the more such stimuli are present the more likely they will become frustrated and overwhelmed enough to break down into a tantrum of screaming and striking out at whoever or whatever is around them.
It’s not a matter of being retarded or anything like that; it has nothing to do with intelligence. Her son, in fact, has a genius level IQ, and for that matter is at or close to savant level in certain arts. Once they finally got the condition diagnosed, they couldn’t cure it certainly but they could modestly mitigate it through certain treatments. For example, if her son was doing schoolwork, he would wear noise-cancelling headphones so that he couldn’t hear and be distracted by what other people around him were doing and saying.
But it’s the kind of neurological condition that must be miserable to live with, and that significantly adds to the burdens of child raising. He was her first born, and I remember her telling me that she kept asking herself things like, “Is this really what parenting is?” It felt to her almost like it was some kind of secret that no one talked about, that parenting was actually vastly more time-consuming, more dominating of one’s life, and more filled with endless landmines even than people let on.
So I felt like in that sense I had some personal connection with this film, with Marlo’s struggles with Jonah. Not that I had dealt directly with such a situation myself, but it was something that had deeply affected someone very important to me and that I knew some modest amount about it.
Anyway, Marlo is prevailed upon by her wealthy brother to hire a “night nanny,” which he pays for as a gift. I had never heard of such a person, but a night nanny is someone who spends the night at a home with a newborn, basically babysitting the infant and taking care of all of its needs that happen to come up except breastfeeding (so she doesn’t function as a wet nurse), and even in the case of breastfeeding the nanny brings the baby to the mother rather than the mother having to constantly get up during the night to go to the baby.
Her night nanny is Tully, a very positive, life-affirming, resourceful, compassionate young woman in her 20s. Marlo at first is wary of this whole night nanny idea, but soon enough she is won over and embraces it.
I mean, how could she not? Tully is basically perfect. Not only does she do everything she is supposed to do as far as caring for the new baby overnight, but she also does things like clean the house and prepare fresh-baked cupcakes for the morning.
Plus, she sees it as part of her job to care for Marlo as well. Part of that is inherent in the baby care she provides—having a night nanny increases the sleep Marlo can get and decreases the stress she experiences—but it goes beyond that. As their relationship develops, Tully becomes an ideal therapist as well, listening with maximum empathy to Marlo, offering advice and encouragement, helping her to understand all the things she could and should be doing to take care of herself, praising her, and even providing her therapy concerning her sex life—or lack of same.
That’s the most obvious flaw in the movie, that it’s unrealistic in depicting Tully as basically an angel who descends from Heaven to help Marlo put her life in order and be happy.
Marlo’s good fortune even spreads beyond that. After all the headaches she has had to endure at Jonah’s school, she finds another school where he is welcomed by people who fully accept him as he is and who seemingly understand what needs to be done with someone like him, and with children in general, to enable him to flourish.
I had read ahead of time that this is probably not a good movie for people contemplating having children to see, in that it’s really in your face with all the shit, piss, puke, tantrums, painful breastfeeding, sleep disruptions, endless clutter, unanticipated expenses, and on and on that will dominate your life when you have a kid—or three.
But then it takes you—and Marlo—from that low point to a kind of parenting paradise, through the agency of the superhuman Tully.
If anything like this were remotely realistic, then any mother or mother-to-be who saw this movie would eagerly google “night nanny” as soon as she got home from the theater and arrange to have all her problems solved.
It’s funny, though, that when a scene came along with a hint of imperfection in Tully—an indication that she does not live purely for others, especially Marlo, and that she actually has an independent life, and a potentially flawed one at that where she clashes with her roommate and has problems and self-doubts of her own—on a gut level I didn’t really like that. I mean, you can make the case that I should have, as it finally injected a little realism into that character, but I didn’t.
I think what had happened by then is that I had gradually accepted the movie on its own terms and was OK with it. In my mind I had a general sense of what I would conclude about the movie when I wrote about it: It’s pretty lightweight, but it’s a “feel good” movie that ultimately succeeds in making one “feel good.” The acting, the general filmmaking, etc. is all very professional, very well-done. It’s only marginally more realistic than Mary Poppins, but that isn’t as objectionable as it could be.
It didn’t provoke as deep emotions or thoughts in me as the best movies can, but it did cause me to reflect upon a few worthwhile things here and there. One was how one could live one’s life—whether through choice of career or in other respects—in more of a Tully fashion to do good for others, ease their burdens, boost their health and self-esteem, etc.
Another concerns the realization I came to some years ago, and have written a bit about, of how age can best be thought of as a range rather than a single number. That is, a 60 year old to me is really a birth-through-60 year old, in that it’s a person who has within him or her all the ages up to and including 60, not just 60. Given that, and given that there are good and bad traits associated with every age, the ideal is to retain the best of each age as well as you can, to hold on to what is best about being a 5 year old, a 16 year old, a 30 year old, etc., because as a 60 year old you really are still all those ages too.
That’s relevant here in that Tully nicely gets Marlo back in touch with her self of her 20s, which she’s ambivalent about having lost, and then as their relationship develops, Marlo to a modest degree reciprocates by pointing Tully in the direction of perhaps the wiser perspective of someone who is 40 or so. Thus each tries to help the other combine the best of different ages, and appreciate the best of different ages.
I’d also say there are some issues worth thinking about in the movie regarding schooling. The folks at Jonah’s school are sort of depicted as villains, and then contrasted with what Marlo finds when she takes him to his new school, but I’m not completely unsympathetic to the people at his first school. Jonah is so out of control so often that he uses up way more resources in terms of teacher time and such than any other student, and adversely affects the experience of everyone else in his classroom. They try—as tactfully as possible—to explain to Marlo that there’s an unfairness to this.
I have mixed feelings about that. Part of me says you take kids as they are, and devote the resources to them that they need, where greater needs call for the use of greater—not equal—resources. Or really, to go beyond that, I would totally rethink the basic classroom-based educational system that almost everyone takes for granted and steer things in more of a Sudbury educational philosophy direction, which would completely change the debate over kids like Jonah.
But on the other hand I also understand where the school officials are coming from. If you’re going to accept the “normal” model of contemporary schooling, then when a teacher is constantly unable to teach the rest of the students because one student is completely losing it and carrying on like a lunatic all the time, that’s just not a good situation and not a situation that’s fair to all those other students.
So all-in-all, I would say, or would have said if the movie had ended 15 minutes or whatever before it did, that Tully is worthwhile to some modest degree—far from anything great, but a feel-good movie with just enough else going for it to put it barely in the thumbs up category.
OK, but then there’s that zinger of a plot twist I alluded to that requires one to drastically reconsider all that came before.
And again I want to be real careful what I say about that. I’m not even happy about saying that there’s a major shift like that, since telling a viewer that some big surprise is coming will change how they experience the film even if you don’t tell them in advance what that thing is.
But anyway, rather than talk in specifics, I’ll address how I reacted to that final portion of the film.
It took me some time to decide what I thought of it. At first I was just conscious of being off balance, but undecided whether I preferred what happened over just having the movie end before that final plot twist. I had to let it sink in.
But soon enough I came to the conclusion that that twist was more of a positive than a negative. Not because of the novelty factor that it succeeded in surprising me, but more in the way it changed but didn’t disvalue what came before. That is, it caused me to think about mostly the same issues, but it felt like those issues resonated with me just a little more emotionally, like there was a little more depth to this film after all. All that we saw of Marlo and of this family leading up to that point remains relevant, as do all the issues the story raised about child care, schooling, taking care of oneself in order to better care for others and vice versa, lost youth and aging, and so on.
The twist doesn’t detract from any of that. Nor am I inclined to say that it’s a neutral, unneeded gimmick. Upon reflection I’m inclined to say it modestly enhances what came before.
So I had Tully as a slight thumbs up based on everything before the major plot twist; let’s bump it up an increment from there.