I tend to describe Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody’s Tully, which seemed to be shrugged off when it was released in 2018, as “Follies, but about motherhood”, a reference that, though it may only register for some people, seems apt to me: certainly, it is about the challenges of motherhood (in particular, raising three children), and the skewed and inequitable manner in which the labor and work of motherhood is discussed, and a thoughtful character study of a woman, Margo (Charlize Theron), experiencing postpartum depression. I think it is also about the lives we lead, the ones which we wish explored and embodied, and the struggle to reconcile our past dreams and aspirations with present reality.
In Follies, the 1971 Broadway musical with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by James Goldman, its Weismann Follies reunion attending main couples — Sally and Buddy, Phyllis and Ben — are perpetually haunted by the ghosts of their younger selves, and the dream of what they thought life would be comes colliding unceremoniously with the reality of the lives they lead now, so different than what they expected but poisoned by the same hopes and subsequent disappointments. It’s in the back half of the musical, described as the “Loveland” sequence, that these irreconcilable differences in who these characters thought they would be, who they think they are, and who they actually are, especially to one another, is interrogated. In songs like “The God-Why-Don’t-You-Love-Me Blues”, “Losing My Mind”, “The Story of Jesse and Lucy”, and “Live, Laugh, Love”, the quartet purge, or don’t purge, themselves of their demons, and, fueled by alcohol and melancholy, reenact the same pain they’ve felt for decades as a kind of spectacle of disappointment.
Tully isn’t so different; Margo reopens wounds through her eponymous night nurse (Mackenzie Davis), a version of herself that she thought she had lost (she is a coping mechanism and hallucinatory side effect of her PPD). It’s hard to imagine that someone as sharp voiced as Theron, who cuts every constant and drags every syllable with visible exhaustion and frustration, could have once been Davis’s Tully: smooth, light, dreamlike. Her words are a pillow onto which one can lay their head. When Tully arrives on Margo’s doorstep, she takes a short, but crucial moment before announcing herself: “I’m Tully.” Her voice is inviting, warm, unintrusive, paradoxically feather-like, but containing an emotional weight heavy enough to make you well up on that one line read. As some of the other Follies sing in Sondheim’s musical, “Who’s that woman? Mirror, mirror…”
As a version of herself helps find her an idea of a childcare routine that seems sustainable to her, bringing her closer to her children just when Margo thought she was hanging by a thread, soft, fuzzy guitar strums float into the film, like a dream. A small, DIY version of “You Only Live Twice” plays over a montage of Margo allowing two parts of herself to come together, to give her the strength she thought she had lost. Performed by Mady and Kaitlyn Dever’s band Beulahbelle, they mine the Nancy Sinatra song written for James Bond’s fifth film of the same name, for its spare orchestrations and depth of emotions. If in the Bond film the song refers to Bond’s double identity as secret agent and mortal, Reitman and Cody use it for, one the on hand, not for dissimilar means, in terms of deconstructing a myth of motherhood as superhero. But more crucially, Margo melds different versions of herself to survive, effectively keeping a part of herself alive as the last thread of hope.
The Devers’ vocals sound a bit like hope, not to be saccharine about it. “And love is a stranger who beckons you on” echoes in the film, the vocals as phantasm-like as Tully herself, a painful point of identification for weary and worn out Margo, clasping onto a past to save herself. Margo watches a movie with her kids and tucks away to the bathroom, where Tully applies the same kind of wild makeup on her face; but really, isn’t she just looking at herself, asking how her past can inform the kind of mother she’s trying to be? Like the living room rendition (it was literally recorded in the Devers’ living room), it’s small and sweet and sad.
The title of the 1965 Bond film and book You Only Live Twice comes from author Ian Fleming’s haiku: “You only live twice / Once when you are born / and once when you look death in the face.” Maybe in Tully, it’s about looking your past in the face to figure out who you are now and to help you become the next version of yourself.