A Postpartum Doula Discusses Tully (after a screening with director Jason Reitman)
WARNING: This post contains all kinds of spoilers. I’m gonna spill the beans about what this movie is about - don’t say I didn’t warn you! If you’re at all curious or interested in this movie, go see it first...then come back and read this. A word of advice, though: if you’re a mother/parent and had a difficult postpartum time, especially with regards to your emotional and mental well being, please see this movie with a good friend or someone with whom you can chat about it afterwards. It will stir up emotions. I don’t say this lightly. If you don’t care about spoilers, then by all means, read on.
Before I get started, it should be noted there are several lenses through which one can watch and analyze this movie: as a moviegoer or film enthusiast, as a parent, as a parent with a postpartum mood disorder, as a birth professional...or of course, a combination of a number of these lenses and many others.
I’m not much of a moviegoer, and I haven’t had children myself. This post is mostly influenced by my experience as a birth professional - more specifically, as a postpartum doula, someone who supports families with new babies.
Before I get into any of my commentary, here’s the plot summary on IMDB: The film is about Marlo, a mother of three including a newborn, who is gifted a night nanny by her brother. Hesitant to the extravagance at first, Marlo comes to form a unique bond with the thoughtful, surprising, and sometimes challenging young nanny named Tully.
So this is what we walk into the movie thinking it’s about.
When I first saw the trailer, I got super excited about it: a movie about a postpartum doula?! Amazing! (For the record: postpartum doulas and night nannies are different, but very similar; many postpartum doulas do overnight shifts.) My doula colleagues were also thrilled about Tully and even began organizing group movie outings to go see it. I got a ticket to see it at the TIFF theatre here in Toronto, with director Jason Reitman present for a discussion and Q&A afterward.
The excitement soon faded, however, when reviews and talk started going around that raised some big concerns. For the record, I deliberately chose not to read any of the articles circulating on the Internet prior to watching the movie (and writing this review). I read a dozen or so Facebook comments from my fellow doula colleagues, and that was enough for me. I did not want to be influenced any further before seeing the movie myself.
The first thing I heard that concerned me was the fact that the night nanny, Tully, sleeps with Marlo’s husband. This was a huge FACEPALM moment for me: really, Hollywood, really?! An affair between the doula and the husband? Given that postpartum doulas are a relatively new profession, I started to worry about this (yeah, I’m a worrier). How would this movie influence the public’s perception of postpartum doulas? This couldn’t be good.
That was perhaps a pretty superficial concern, though, compared to what I caught wind of next: that the movie depicted a woman suffering from a postpartum mood disorder. How was this going to be portrayed? I was nervous about this as well. I continued to avoid reading any of the reviews.
I went to see it, with the intention of getting some answers regarding these two issues I had stirring in my head. I sat in the front row, a few metres from Jason Reitman, and during the Q&A session after viewing the film, I nervously took the mic.
“Hi Jason. I’m a postpartum doula -” I began.
“Oh! Wow...” he said, clearly taken aback. My friend told me he had a nervous expression on his face. The audience laughed quietly.
“So there’s been lots of talk and discussion in the postpartum doula community about this movie, and I’m curious about how you think this movie might influence us as a profession. What do you think about this?”
Before I get to his answer, let me do some serious bean spilling.
The character Tully doesn’t actually exist in reality. This is the big twist at the end of the movie, where you realize Tully is entirely imagined by Marlo and has, in fact, never had any interaction with any other character in the movie.
Tully is Marlo’s younger self “coming to save her”, as Jason Reitman explained.
Jason (whose presence I found to be quite warm and genuine, for the record) spoke about how you think you’re watching a simple movie about motherhood...but then you realize you’re not, really. The movie is not actually about motherhood, or a night nanny; it’s about saying goodbye to your younger self. He noted that while the first time viewer watches the movie from Marlo’s perspective, during a second viewing one might watch it from Tully’s perspective, seeing her walk into her future home and life and family.
Personally, I think this is a very cool idea/theme to explore, and the writing and performances are brilliant. Many professionals working with postpartum parents feel that there are some highly problematic elements in this movie, and I don’t necessarily disagree. I wonder if perhaps it could have or should have been done differently...this is what I’m here to explore in this post.
In response to my question about how the movie might influence the postpartum doula profession, he said he definitely understands the doula community’s trepidation about it - and that they had to market it as a movie about a night nanny, but it’s just not about that.
Okay, I get it. It’s not really about a night nanny, because the night nanny is imagined. That’s pretty clear to me now. I’m not worried about this anymore, now having an understanding of the greater context of the movie’s plot. (Besides, I would hope that anyone hiring a postpartum doula or night nanny would understand that sexual favours are NOT part of the job description.)
The irony is: for a movie that’s NOT about a postpartum doula, it sure does highlight the need for postpartum doulas in our culture. Throughout the majority of the movie - before we are made aware that Marlo is delusional - we watch as she struggles with everyday life. She’s overworked and exhausted. She’s completely burnt out. She has no time or energy to take care of herself. She’s struggling to keep up with everything that demands her attention. She’s running on empty. She’s depleted. If this is modern motherhood, then we’re doing something wrong.
Which brings me to my next topic for discussion: Marlo is NOT just dealing with “modern motherhood”, as the film would have us believe. She’s actually dealing with mental illness - postpartum psychosis, to be precise.
Another audience member asked Jason the other question I had for him: What is the movie trying to say about postpartum mood disorders?
Jason said simply that the movie doesn’t seek to make a statement about mental health. He acknowledged that yes, Marlo has postpartum depression and psychosis, but that they never sought to make a movie about that specifically. As a filmmaker he never wants his personal opinion to be present in his movies; he’s more interested in simply capturing human moments on screen.
If you hate his answer to this question, bear with me while I play devil’s advocate here. On the one hand, from an artistic perspective, I get it. I mean, not everything HAS to make a big statement about something. And really, this is what Jason Reitman excels at as a filmmaker - making movies about human relationships and emotions. Look at Juno, or Up In The Air, or Young Adult. I know I personally enjoy these types of movies that aren’t really ABOUT anything, really - they just portray real life moments on screen.
I totally appreciate that he doesn’t want the movie to make a grand statement, that he doesn’t want it to feel like a PSA or something. If he’d put in some statistics or information about postpartum mood disorders during the end credits, it could potentially feel out of place, or detract from the movie as a work of art. So I get that creative choice. This is not a documentary.
On the other hand, I’m disappointed and concerned with his response to this question.
The problem is...this is a HUGE topic that until now, hasn’t been addressed in film. There are some documentaries, sure, but there’s been no big budget Hollywood movie featuring a postpartum mood disorder as the key plot element, that I’m aware of. To be the first is significant. It begs the question: is it irresponsible to back away from making any kind of statement about it?
At the end of the movie, when we reach the “aha” moment and realize the Tully character isn’t real, we don’t actually know what kind of help Marlo receives. A doctor recognizes that Marlo is suffering, and then we see a brief heartfelt conversation between Marlo and her husband. What we don’t see is any kind of treatment plan being put in place.
...and that has me sighing and shaking my head.
We also never hear the words “postpartum psychosis”. It’s concerning that the movie doesn’t accurately name the condition. Postpartum psychosis is an incredibly rare and dangerous condition that affects 1-2 out of 1000 birthing parents. It shouldn’t be lumped together with postpartum depression, nor made to seem like just part of “modern motherhood”.
It’s one thing to not want your movie to make an official statement about a huge societal issue, to not want it to feel like a documentary. It’s another thing, one might argue, to avoid the responsibility that comes with being the first mainstream release about something as serious as postpartum psychosis.
I feel concerned about how this movie is going to land in the hearts of all the mothers who have struggled, and are still struggling, with their postpartum mood. To say this movie could be triggering is an understatement.
Whatever themes the filmmakers wanted to explore, whether or not they set out to make a movie about postpartum mental health, is kind of irrelevant. The fact remains: the protagonist in this story is struggling, and needs help, and there are thousands of mothers that can and will relate to her. Many of these women have been failed by their medical system. I fear they will be left feeling failed by this movie, too.
One could argue that just making this movie is a statement in itself, given the fact that no other movie on this subject matter even exists. That putting it out there and getting people talking about it, is enough. I think there's truth to that. It’s caused quite a commotion in the doula and maternal mental health communities already, that’s for sure.
Some people are suggesting to boycott the movie, but I think that’s a terrible idea. If someone makes a conscious choice not to see it, to protect their mental well-being, I respect that 100%. But I think the majority of us should be watching this and discussing it. One psychiatrist feels that in fact, Tully is doing a service, and that the overall benefits of the film (i.e. it being a conversation starter) outweigh the negatives...I have to agree with this perspective. Some of the best movies are the ones that trigger us, the ones that get us talking.
Should the movie have had more blatant discussion about Marlo’s experience with postpartum psychosis, depicting her treatment plan at the end? Is there a way that could have been written into the script powerfully, while keeping the film’s creative integrity intact? Do the filmmakers even have to be responsible for how their movie is received, anyway?
I don’t know. I don’t have the answers, nor do I think these issues are black and white.
What I DO know is: we (our society/culture) need to start having some real, honest conversations about postpartum mood disorders. This film - a big budget Hollywood movie with a big budget star who will most certainly draw audiences to see it - is a good catalyst for those discussions. A starting place. For that, perhaps we can be grateful.
Before I end this post, I feel it’s important to acknowledge my limitations in writing about this (which naturally leads me to ask further questions):
1) I haven’t experienced any postpartum mood disorder firsthand. Without a doubt, someone who has lived experience of that might have different thoughts than me. If that’s you, I would love to hear from you if you feel safe and comfortable sharing...either in a comment on this post, or feel free to email me. Did this movie trigger you? Do you feel okay that the filmmakers weren’t trying to make any kind of statement? Would you have liked to have seen something different?
2) The screenwriter, Diablo Cody, was not present at the event. Given the fact that she is a mother of three herself, just like her fictional character Marlo, I’m very interested to hear from her as well. What inspired her to write this movie in the first place? Does she have anything to say to audiences about postpartum mood disorders? These questions remain unanswered. It would seem that she, like the movie’s director, wishes to keep her opinions to herself. *EDIT: Here is an interview with Diablo Cody.
Jason Reitman, if you’re reading this, you should know that all things said, I enjoyed the movie. Although I’m no film enthusiast or critic, I think the performances were stellar. I feel there may be a missed opportunity here, though. I’m struggling to reconcile your artistic choices with our culture’s need for real, honest dialogue about postpartum mental health. I wish that at the screening you’d spoken more openly about this topic...because surely you must know there are going to be many, many mothers who will watch your movie and relate to Marlo’s struggles in a very real way. They may go to the theatre seeking solidarity, only to come up empty handed (and possibly confused, angry, and emotionally triggered). I do hope that Tully will be a huge conversation starter with regards to postpartum mental health...and since you and Diablo Cody are the creative forces behind the film, it would be great to hear your contributions to those conversations.
In closing, here are some resources to be aware of. If you’ve had a baby and are struggling, you are NOT alone and there is help.