This article contains spoilers.
Diablo Cody has a thing for bicycles. In her 2008 smash hit, Juno, the closing scene sees our teenage heroine (Ellen Page) merrily pedal up to her boyfriend (Michael Cera) but a few shots after giving their newborn up for adoption. “I know people are supposed to fall in love before they reproduce,” muses Page’s droll voiceover, “but I guess normalcy just isn’t our style.” Cue endearing Moldy Peaches tune and summertime guitar strumming.
In Tully, Cody’s third and latest collaboration with director Jason Reitman, the bike motif takes on action-flick bravura as Charlize Theron’s Marlo steals a three-speed from the streets of Bushwick and furiously rides toward her old apartment. “I’m not safe, I’m scared!” she tells her pedantic night nanny, Tully (Mackenzie Davis), who has claimed that, despite the snarls of Marlo’s domestic life, she has “actually made [her] biggest dream come true.” In both movies, the bike becomes a mode of mobility for women erstwhile trapped by the demands of motherhood. But while Juno was lauded for its lead’s feisty take on unplanned pregnancy, Tully’s depiction of postpartum psychosis has been censured by mothers and mental-health providers alike. “I can see why there’s a lot of anger out there,” Postpartum Support International president Ann Smith told the New York Times, “and I think they have a right to it.”
Cody herself would seem to agree. “[T]he film is meant to be uncomfortable,” she explained in response, adding that she “absolutely did not” consult medical experts when writing, basing the script’s premise instead on her own research and experience of mothering. For anyone who’s followed the screenwriter’s career, this comes as no surprise. Dubbed by Reitman the “semi-autobiographical” follow-up to Juno and 2011’s Young Adult, Tully reads as the final act in a trilogy doggedly plumbing the depths of how motherhood—and its absence—can both define and limit female identity. But when Juno glossed over the trauma of gestating a child and giving it away, barely anyone batted an eye. Nor was there particular uproar when the boozy protagonist of Young Adult (also played by Theron) didn’t wind up in a 12-step program. So why, when exploring the mental unraveling of a 40-something mom, is it the responsibility of the film to overtly diagnose and deliver treatment?
“I see such a missed opportunity,” says Motherly author Diana Spalding. “Had the movie been just a bit longer, perhaps they could have shown Marlo receiving help—how amazing would it have been to see Hollywood take on the stigma of maternal mental health and turn it on its head? Instead, we leave with the notion that this is just ‘how it is’ for moms.”
How it is? Just as it’s doubtful that distressed moms are so delicate as to be invariably triggered by the film, it seems unlikely that any viewer would assume that a plunge into a river and meet-n-greet with an actual mermaid savior—both plot points in Tully—are part and parcel of parenthood. Moreover, the film does turn the mental-health stigma “on its head”—by presenting its neurologically atypical female lead as clever, dynamic, and bracingly real. Behold: Marlo running through the woods a few months after giving birth to her third child, intent on outpacing a colt-like millennial. To some this scene may seem to expose the “ugly” of motherhood; it is, rather, the triumph. When her running rival is clearly disturbed by her leaking boobs, no apologetic tone accompanies Marlo’s “I make milk.” It’s life, and she’s gonna keep on running.
Aside one brief quip from her curious elder daughter, there is also no apology for Marlo’s beleaguered body, and at times the film insists that, even when feeling like an “abandoned trash barge,” this mom still has it going on. Observe Charlize picking off the chocolate chips from a lonely muffin, nine months in, and running into her striking lady-ex from back-in-the-day Brooklyn. ”You have my number,” she says to Marlo, who is too weary to consider the encounter for the flirtation it clearly is.
More recently in the Times, Ylonda Gault accused Tully of “almost mocking postpartum depression.” Maybe the moments of magic realism went too far for some, but I saw the film more as a Where the Wild Things Are for the postpartum set: Instead of furry goblins, we get a lissome night nurse who suddenly grows fins. And while many critics refuse to see it, the movie doesn’t pass over the tenderer moments of momming: Legos between Marlo and her differently abled son, bedtime games of “Lighter/Darker,” her daughter shampooing Marlo’s hair while they discuss Monsters, Inc. These scenes may not be the focus of the plot, but consistently chill off the “maternal crucible” when things start to boil over.
Gault further claims Tully is of a piece with the conception of motherhood—especially among “white, well–off women”—as backbreaking “work,” rather than a redemptive transformation: “Basically it’s a bunch of privileged women shouting: ‘Look! I’m doing a whole lot here. See me suffering?’”
She’s right. Black women usually don’t get that opportunity, just as they usually don’t get the opportunity to even be depressed, as Margo Jefferson has so brilliantly argued. “Because our people had endured horrors and prevailed, even triumphed, their descendants should be too strong and too proud for such behaviour,” she explains about her mental health struggles. “We were not to be depressed… we were not to have nervous collapses.”
But that didn’t make Jefferson’s depression any less crippling; if anything, the ethos of resilience could become a burden of its own. While Gault makes the great point that “pop culture [has busily played] up the fragility of white women,” she seems to suggest that her blackness itself has protected her from the worst of postpartum woes—ironic given postpartum depression and psychosis are actually more common in women of colour; they just happen to be grossly under-diagnosed.
Ultimately, Tully may be so controversial specifically because motherhood is such a lightning rod in terms of race, class, and, well, everything else. But just as we don’t expect the Bourne franchise to dole out wisdom on the perils of PTSD, why would we want Tully to end at the pharmacy counter? A film, above all, is meant to empathize, not pathologize, and Cody—for whom “normalcy” has never been in style—thankfully seems to know that.
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.