In the role of an expectant mother named Marlo in Tully—Diablo Cody’s latest film—Charlize Theron fully inhabits the bodily horrors that pregnancy and the first few postpartum weeks contain. The prosthetic belly she wears in the first 10 minutes of the film—before her character gives birth to a third child, which seemingly pushes her over the edge—is enormous and mottled; it pokes out from under her t-shirts and asserts itself at every moment. She is perpetually exhausted until Tully (the titular nanny) arrives. A stranger at a coffee shop tells Marlo that there are trace amounts of caffeine in the decaf latte she just ordered, and to spite this woman, she drinks it anyway. A nurse watches her try to pee and she lashes out. Then later, after Tully is hired, Marlo nurses her baby in the dark, in bed, while Tully grins beatifically from the shadows. Motherhood, in Cody’s eyes, is to be under a sort of surveillance.
From its trailer alone, Tully seemed like an anomaly in the nanny subgenre—a movie in which the nanny isn’t trying to kill the mother, the father, or the children, and instead wants to help. What’s less clear is the bleak magic that powers the entire enterprise, turning what could have been a heartwarming dark comedy into something much more sinister and thought provoking. The marketing teased out all the pleasing bits and elided the unsavory stuff underneath, when in fact, Tully is all about the dark spaces a new mother’s brain goes after the stress of childbirth and raising a family. (MAJOR SPOILER ahead, so proceed with caution.)
Marlo is a tired mother of three whose husband (Ron Livingston) is present but mostly absent. We are led to believe that they don’t have much money—especially in contrast to Marlo’s brother (Mark Duplass, not the one on Transparent), who lives in a giant modernist pile and has the kind of money that allows for a full-time nanny named Shasta and a tiki bar in his home for kicks. The brother suggests Tully to Marlo, when Marlo is days away from her due date. After a montage about the physical toll of new motherhood, Marlo acquiesces.
Tully is the type of nanny whose presence is dangerous not for sinister reasons, but because it comes abundantly clear halfway through the film that she isn’t real (that is the twist), and the danger is in the fact that she’s real in Marlo’s mind. She has no last name, no day job, and most importantly, not a single person aside from Marlo has ever laid eyes on her. Through the movie’s first half, Tully is nothing short of a miracle. The house is clean. The baby sleeps. And Marlo (Theron is remarkably good in the role) is finally able to relax into the sort of domestic goddess her suburban New York City world calls for: Indian-print sundresses, taking bread, roast chicken and green salad on the table every night for dinner. It’s all thanks to Tully, who as we learn by the film’s end—was just a figment of Marlo’s imagination—perhaps a side effect of postpartum psychosis, or just the wanderings of an overtired brain running on fumes. The life she had, where Tully helped her fulfill her fate, was a lie.
Within the framework of fictional nannies, Tully checks all the boxes. She is capable, young and spry, with boundless patience and an indefatigable spirit. She works miracles with the children and preaches the importance of self-care. She’s the kind of guide to motherhood that every mother yearns for—part companion, part maid, and entirely devoted to care-taking. Where Tully differs as a nanny movie is how it is so explicitly about the mother’s needs, wants, and desires. As a nanny, Tully is simply the manifestation of Marlo’s long-simmering panic about her own life and how, three kids deep, she is irrevocably changed.
Traditionally, nannies on film are saviors who exist primarily to tend to the needs of the children, who are always in dire need of being parented because the real parents cannot be bothered. Picture Maria taming the Von Trapp brood in The Sound of Music, or Emma Thompson’s Nanny McPhee magicking an unruly lot of seven children into formation against an evil great-aunt who would separate them. In these films, the children are the main concern and the parents are absent-minded authority figures who seemingly cannot figure out how to raise their children, and by extension, love them. Tully’s primary concern is not the children—she is worried about Marlo because they are one in the same. Her assessment and tacit approval of Marlo’s life is all that’s needed to break the spell.
There’s a specific fantasy element around the idea of a nanny serving as a performative corrective to motherhood that Tully and another iconic nanny, Mary Poppins, addresses. In both cases, the parents need an outside push to be taught how to do the jobs that they’ve assumed, and that push comes via a literally magic being. While Mary Poppins’s magic is of the wholesome Disney variety—carpet bags full of tricks, chimney sweeps, talking carousel horses, etc.—it’s not that different, conceptually, from Tully’s effect, which goes largely unseen in the movie, but manifests in a tidy home and a happy family.
Nannies in film have, of course, not always been traditionally white; in fact, the caricature of black nannies (the mammy archetype) persisted for ages and often bended towards the “magical Negro.” In the trailer for Corinna, Corinna, a 1994 film starring Ray Liotta, Tina Majorino, and Whoopi Goldberg as Corinna, a solemn voiceover intones: “Corinna was looking for work. Manny was looking for a miracle.” That miracle is Corinna, a woman who sweeps in and single-handedly saves the family, teaching Manny’s daughter how to speak again in the wake of her mother’s untimely death and ultimately falling a little bit in love with Manny himself. Her magic is her presence and it is enough. Alas, it is 1959 and racism exists, so their love encounters some hurdles, but in the end, prevails. The movie was based on a somewhat true story—writer and director Jessie Nelson’s housekeeper and nanny who, according to the New York Times review, helped raise her. (In reality, the nanny did not fall in love with Neslon’s father, but on film, Corinna is a young college graduate unable to find work who glide into this broken family and fixes it.)
As with anything surrounding motherhood, there’s been a raft of controversy around Tully. Like with many of Cody’s other works, the movie exists in a strange vacuum of privilege. It is indeed another story about a woman whose problems are, in the grand scheme of things, slightly miniscule. The film’s depiction of postpartum psychosis felt real enough to be triggering for some. A post on Mother.ly written by Diana Spalding clocks Marlo’s journey through the movie—aided, for the most part, by Tully—as a near-textbook case of postpartum psychosis, a serious condition that affects 1 in 1000 women.
Speaking to the New York Times about the surrounding controversy, Cody said the film was intended to be unsettling, and the fact that Marlo never really gets help is part of its message. “Sometimes what you’re desperate for is for someone to say: ‘Hey, I actually see what’s going on here. This is serious, we need to deal with it and there’s a name for it.’ And Marlo doesn’t get that comfort in this film. Because the film is meant to be uncomfortable,” Cody told the Times. “I have had my own experiences and my own research.” Cody didn’t consult with any maternal psychologists or mental health experts when she wrote the script.
Like any good fairytale, Tully ends on a hopeful note: Marlo’s husband agrees to help more and they work through it. Dissidents arguing for verisimilitude make a fair point, but this is really nothing more than a fairytale whose chewy moral center is bitter to the taste. The point is that motherhood, while rewarding, is also brutal.