'Tully's' Portrayal of Motherhood Is Messy—as It Should Be

Charlize Theron's new film is ruffling feathers, but it hits close to home, and might just be the wakeup call all moms and dads need.

Charlize Theron in Movie Tully Sleeping on Couch Focus Features

Tully, the Diablo Cody-penned feature film about the trappings of motherhood, found itself at the center of controversy more than a week before its release as mental health advocates balked at its perceived take on postpartum depression.

Trailers for the film, which stars Charlize Theron, touted Tully's lighthearted, but all-too-relateable mommy moments, notably a spilled bag of freshly-pumped breast milk and harried school drop-offs. But this story is so much more than a comedy. It's a vulnerable portrayal of what happens when your best-laid plans go off the rails and raising a family feels like the weight of the world.

The movie, in theaters May 4, introduces us to Marlo, played by Theron, a mother of two in the final days of her third pregnancy. She and her husband Drew have settled into their modest life, thrown for a loop when they learn they are having a third child for which they had not planned. At the age of 40, Marlo seems to be questioning her life choices in a completely familiar way. It's apparent she loves her children, but reminiscing about her free-wheeling 20s is a reminder of dreams left behind in favor of starting a family.

As the story unravels, it becomes clear this is not your average mommy movie. Absent is a traditional best friend for Marlo. Sure, the titular character Tully, a night nurse gifted by Marlo's more affluent brother to help in the early weeks after the baby is born, sweeps in as a breath of fresh air. She offers a young, optimistic outlook on babies and self-care that only a 20-something with a zest for life can. But Tully is only there to work her magic at night. During the day Marlo goes it alone, without any sassy, supportive sidekicks.

The story is also different in the sense that Drew isn't a hapless idiot of a father and husband, as we've come to expect from mom-coms. Aloof, yes, but the audience would be hard-pressed to say he doesn't care about his family. Everyone in the household appears to be doing the best they can, ships passing in the night while navigating life.

And then comes the plot twist—It's that moment that we subconsciously know is coming, that pivotal moment where we finally realize what has been "off" about Marlo's story the entire time. You gasp, you choke up, and your heart breaks for this woman whose life you've found so relatable for the previous 90 minutes. Because it's about to get really real.

Warning: Spoilers Ahead!

It's at the end of a raucous, throw-caution-to-the-wind night out in Manhattan for Marlo and Tully when we learn that, in fact, Tully is not real. She's an imaginary counterpart, the ghost of who Marlo used to be in her 20s. The free spirit she misses about herself floating in like a figment from her past to breathe life into the present. And at that moment we realize that Marlo is battling postpartum mental illness. All the while she has managed to use this character of Tully to disguise fractured emotions, feelings, and what she perceives as shortcomings. It's eye-opening to think that all of this time Drew never questioned why he had not met the night nurse, or any of the other changes in his wife. But that's the thing about mental illness—it can be so silent that those closest are completely unaware of the direness of a situation.

Mackenzie Davis and Charlize Theron in Movie Tully Kimberly French / Focus Features 

The plot twist is also where mental health advocates argue their biggest issue with the film as the medical diagnosis handed down on screen is postpartum depression. They say it's inaccurate and dangerous, that what Marlo is really experiencing is postpartum psychosis, a rare condition that affects 1 to 2 of every 1,000 new moms. These women may experience delusions, hallucinations, and inability to sleep, according to Postpartum Support International. I'm not a mental health expert, therefore I cannot weigh in as to the exactness of the symptoms involved, the appropriate identification of the illness in question, or the course of treatment. But as a real-life mother and wife who identifies very strongly with many of the film's touchstones, it hit very close to home.

Because while it's incredibly important to bring awareness to every condition women face during their postpartum experience and we need more education on the subject, the overarching theme of Tully is to be reminded that we're not alone. There is no such thing as the perfect mom. And there is no "right" way to raise a child.

What Tully brings to the table that has often gone overlooked in the wake of the arguments about its portrayal of mental health is that it serves as a reminder that in motherhood and life, things aren't always what they seem. In the frenzy of day-to-day existence, a partner, no matter how loving, cannot read their spouse's mind. We need communication. We need honesty. And sometimes we need others to probe a little more into circumstances before assuming everything really is okay. We do need to talk about mental health. We need more movies that zero in on both the tumultuous time of both being a new mom and a seasoned one. But we shouldn't bash films that may not get everything exactly right.

Tully is one of those movies moms should see with their girlfriends. It may not provide the same raucous moments as, say, Bad Moms, but it offers an opening for dialogue about our experiences, concerns, issues, and emotions, touching on those raw moments we'd rather push to the side. But moms should also go back to the theater with a partner who will likely look at your lives together in a very different light.

What I think moviegoers will appreciate (I certainly did) is the way in which Cody and director Jason Reitman wrap up the film. You won't find any tidy bows placed on problems here. There isn't a cure or magical answer for the ongoing plot twists of real life, nor is there at the end of Tully. But there is a sense of optimism, strength, and hope. In the end, isn't that what we need?