Coming-of-Age at Any Age
When I went to see Tully on a rainy evening, the movie theater was practically empty – save for me, my sister and a middle-aged couple who talked and yelled at the screen incessantly, commenting on the action like a low-budget chorus. I wanted to see the film because I was intrigued by the notion of the realities of motherhood and was already familiar with director Jason Reitman’s and writer Diablo Cody’s past work (Juno, Young Adult). This movie follows Marlo (Charlize Theron), a suburban mother. I expected to see a depiction of the harsh realities of parenting through the lens of a thirty-something mother. What I didn’t expect to see was one of the more interesting stories of growing up I’ve seen recently, that was a portrait of both modern womanhood and youthful idealism—and of myself.
Though many coming-of-age stories focus on childhood and adolescence, navigating firsts from crushes to dances to drinking, Tully’s main character is all grown up, and it’s not quite the first time for her: she’s a mother of two about to give birth to a surprise third child. The unplanned-pregnancy plot point might be reminiscent of the endlessly quotable movie Juno, but Tully mostly centers on the friendship between Marlo and her new young night nanny, the titular Tully (Mackenzie Davis). The film shows us motherhood in all its unglamorous detail: pumping milk, barely sleeping, constantly dealing with kids’ temper tantrums and school conflicts, and all the other shitty moments that don’t make it onto anyone’s social media feed. Marlo’s struggles are still surprisingly real and relatable to younger women like myself, even if our daily tasks are more classes and papers than cooking and diapers. When a customer in a coffee shop accusingly asked whether Marlo should be drinking caffeine, and when her daughter bluntly asked her, “What’s wrong with your body?” I cringed with the feeling of familiarity for this same kind of hyper-awareness of appearance and unprompted criticisms from others.
Tully is honest and unromanticized, but still refreshingly presents its world with sympathy. Many movies I’ve seen show middle age as where dreams go to die or depict motherhood as a time when the woman becomes completely desexualized and exists solely for her children…talk about the Freudian Madonna-whore complex. But Marlo continually pushes back against such a reductive conception of her life as a mother—being a parent does not have to become one’s only identity.
As a 21-year-old, I am closest in age to the character of Tully, who is something of a free-spirit foil to Marlo. Yet I also connected with Marlo, even if I might not reach her quote-unquote adult milestones of marriage or having kids for many years. She is unsure of herself and the path her life took, while still remaining truly grateful for her marriage and family; she becomes an encapsulation of the sense of self-doubt that many young people face—always wondering if there’s something better out there, or if we’ve made the right decisions. Marlo, with Tully’s help, begins a process of self-discovery (or re-discovery), showing us younger viewers that such revelatory moments are not limited to adolescence, and that we can continue to find ourselves along the way.
In many ways, watching this film felt like looking into a crystal ball at some version of what my own future could be. Marlo was an English major (like I am) who now works in human resources, and this triggered a twinge of recognition when she wondered why she gave up her passion for writing, one of my own worst fears for myself. Tully becomes emblematic of the youth Marlo has left behind. Marlo somewhat wistfully recounts her partying days, and when she has a brief interaction with a former roommate, there is a palpable sense of longing in the conversation. But Tully is equally comfortable at a Bushwick bar as she is in Marlo’s suburban home and shows us that Marlo’s current “boring” life doesn’t mean she’s completely lost the youthful part of herself—she’s just changed. The idea of navigating transformation becomes more literalized with repeated mermaid symbolism. In folklore, mermaids are often thought to predict disaster for ships, or here, perhaps warn us of the dangers that lie ahead as we age. But mermaids can also represent feminine power—and just as Marlo might feel as if she is drowning from the pressures of being a woman, we are reminded that she might still transform.
In one of their late-night chats, Tully and Marlo talk about the “Ship of Theseus” paradox, which basically asks how much you can change about yourself while still remaining “you.” They talk about small changes, but also the broader process of growing up, which makes me wonder: how much of myself will inevitably change over time, and is change a bad thing? I don’t think it is, and Tully shows me that change is not meant to be feared. I don’t know what my future self might think of current me, my fashion choices and career direction, and I don’t know where I might end up years from now as I age.
As scary as this uncertainty may seem, however, I know I’ll always be fundamentally myself. Trends, jobs, and friends come and go. Fashion styles fade, then circle back every few years. We sing along to different songs on the radio and find new bars and coffee shops to haunt. But coming-of-age isn’t a process that occurs just once in youth and is over. Rather, Tully shows us that it is a constant path of self-discovery and reinvention.
By Katie Duggan