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Tully: Savoir Mermaids and “the Wild Heart that Still Beats Inside the Docile Cow” of the Mother

[Spoiler Alert]

At the simplest level, Jason Reitman’s Tully tells the tale of Marlo’s (Charlize Theron) struggle with the arrival of her third child and consequent hiring of a night nanny named Tully. As Tully herself says, she’s a way to “bridge the gap,” but not in the way we thought. She’s not merely a modern day Mary Poppins there to ease the transition that is the new baby.

“Tully” turns out to be Marlo’s maiden name, the part of herself she shed when she became married and a mother—and perhaps three times to become a mother of three—that she has resurrected in order to survive the new baby. The word “maiden” recalls “maiden” journeys, or firsts, and, ironically enough, virginity—the polar opposite of where Marlo now finds herself, living in the land of lunch boxes and Legos.

And so Marlo conjures this enchanted Tully, who’s simultaneously a mother, friend, sister, lover, and the wild and free part of herself that she has lost to domesticity. Fittingly, Diablo Cody, who penned the screenplay, writes of the film, “The outward struggles of new moms have already been documented in films, TV shows and Tide commercials. It was the inner life of the new mother that I wanted to explore: the wild heart that still beats inside the docile cow.” “Tully” helped Cody bridge a gap, too. Like Marlo, she had recently had number three, but unlike Marlo, the English major who feels she’s failed to do anything worthwhile with her degree, Cody had her art to rescue her. “Writing this script saved me. ‘Tully’ became my Tully, my helper, a glowing, soothing presence I could return to whenever I felt overwhelmed.”

Right after Marlo’s brother suggests she get a night nanny, she starts inventing her own Tully, her own “glowing, soothing presence [she can] return to whenever [she feels] overwhelmed,” and starts having visions of mermaids. She’s talking to her husband and he senses he’s lost her for a second the first time it happens. Right before her water breaks, it happens again. The next time she sees this mermaid is right before her new night nanny, Tully, gives her the baby to feed. Looking back, we see that the whole scene was a vision. The next time we see the mermaid she’s rescuing a Marlo who’s drunkenly driven herself into a body of water. Like the siren’s song, new motherhood can also make you want to go jump in a lake. Just ask Marlo.

In keeping with Cody’s desire to tell the story of “the wild heart that still beats inside the docile cow” of the mother, although it’s easy to forget her connection to her fatal Siren ancestors, the mermaid is a monster. What defines both the mermaid and the monster is her undomesticated, boundary-breaking hybridity. A baby is also a hybrid, a mixture of the woman and man’s genetic matter, all those sewn together stories of who they are and who they hope the baby will be.

And no wonder Marlo’s overwhelmed enough to hallucinate savior mermaids. She doesn’t only have the new baby, Mia. She also has an older daughter, Sarah, and the middle son, Jonah—a child whom various specialists can only describe as “atypical,” which is where I find myself. I pick my own son up each day hoping he got two checks so I can get him ice cream, that he didn’t push that kid or suck on that other kid’s admittedly delicious-looking hair.

Cody wanted to write of the mother’s inner life in particular, and the sound of the mermaid’s dwelling in Marlo’s imaginings recalls a womb. Not everybody will recognize this, except maybe those who bought the app that’s supposed to sound like a womb and therefore comfort the colicky child—or maybe just a child who will turn out to be “atypical” in ways that swim outside the waters of definability, with that mermaid.

The tricky thing is, if she’s swimming in a womb, the mermaid is also the baby, the flapping fetus. Add to this the fact that this Tully/mermaid represents Marlo’s younger, maiden self,  and it starts to seem like Marlo’s able to swim around in her own womb in these visions. Perhaps more precisely, she’s able in this fantastic landscape to splash around in her own brain matter like a fish, in the lost but still present somehow, somewhere, caverns of who she once was.

It’s not merely the gorgeousness of the mermaid’s song that makes it so deadly. It’s also otherworldly in a way that deranges the senses, a thought beyond thought, beauty that pushes human sensory powers beyond their own limits and therefore explodes them.

Some stories hold that mermaids are but love-struck lasses, wanting to bring their human paramours to their home in the sea, without taking into account their lack of gills. This reminds me of motherhood in a strange way.  You get to know your baby while s/he’s underwater, living in your water, in fact. Later, s/he’s a fish out of water that you then need to teach to walk. Mother and child have lived together in this ecstatic, safe, underwater oneness and then they are two, and both have to find their land legs, so to speak. In this sense, Tully (the nanny who is really a part of Marlo herself, and a link to both Mia’s beginnings and even Marlo’s own) embodies the strange, almost possessed, maternal experience of two beings in one body. No scene dramatizes this better than the one where Tully and Marlo have a threesome with Marlo’s husband.

Hans Christian Anderson claims the mermaid’s song is actually a form of compassion—a heavenly sound meant to comfort drowning men. This applies to motherhood and to Tully. Tully is the mermaid song meant to soothe Marlo (and Cody), who is drowning in new motherhood. Of course, in the film, Tully is also the meaner kind of mermaid song, which causes Marlo to drunkenly drive her car into a lake and almost drown herself. Although she does imagine a Tully-like mermaid swimming to save her, and she survives, which is perhaps yet another way that Tully is her savior mermaid.

What gives the movie nuance is how it doesn’t only focus on what you lose in motherhood or how it’s mindbogglingly hard. The film opens and closes on Marlo brushing her son. For those of you whose kids don’t have “sensory issues,” you may not know what this means. The idea is that your child’s hypersensitive to touch (they either seek it out or avoid it) and therefore need to be brushed like a horse. When I first heard about the “problem” of my son’s sensory issues, it saddened me that the joy he took in touching things, what I think of as his poet’s nature, was being pathologized, but I also understood that he couldn’t be licking the school desks.

Marlo brushes his whole body. The film captures this intimate moment, how the light hits them as she does it, how she’s physically close to him in a way she doesn’t always get to be. We see everything about the surreal, sweet, wrenching journey that is motherhood in this scene. She looks exhausted, but like she now knows all sides of life—its storms and rainbows. This scene bookends the film, a kind of arrival and departure. Certain Old English tales make mermaids out to be signs of things to come, both capable of causing storms and spotting them in the distance. After bidding Tully farewell, at the end of the movie, Marlo brushes her son again. She looks serene in this paradoxical way that comes from knowing there will be storms, but she will just be there, brushing and brushing.