As the very first lovechild between Jason Reitman’s directing and Diablo Cody’s writing, Juno reigned over screens in 2007 as a quaint teen pregnancy drama where humour was employed to shape ongoing hostilities surrounding abortion. Twelve years later, Tully made its creeping entrance into the Reitman/Cody universe as their ostensibly matured rendering of motherhood, treated with sobriety as opposed to comedic nonchalance. A treasure trove buried deep below the sea of dewy-eyed dramas that paint motherhood as beautiful and becoming, the ongoing Reitman/Cody motherhood study rarely shies from the trials of parenthood. Juno and Tully swap unconditional doting for selfish tendencies, moments of tenderness for fleeting spurts of immaturity, both cooperating to steamroll expectations and judgements that mothers are constantly besieged by. Vulnerabilities and apprehensions are vented via a ruthless candour, with both films committed to revealing the cracks in the often smiling face of motherhood.
‘Your eggo is preggo’, the cashier remarks to carefree teen Juno (Ellen Page) upon buying her second pregnancy test, prepared to unleash the aftermath of downing a colossal bottle of Sunny D. The sticky circumstance comes as the result of a one-off sexual encounter with gawky best friend Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera), where cherry-patterned pants were slipped off and one set of awkward limbs met another for a cathartic moment of release on Paulie’s old armchair. The bizarre situation is aptly characterised by dialogue that becomes comically genius in its absurdity, but the second positive pregnancy test is shadowed by a fleeting moment of vulnerability in Juno. Her eyes become glassy and her lips part, and she looks like what she is – a child.
The concept of a child carrying a child is never sentimentalised nor omitted in Juno; Juno’s tale is not one of syrupy enlightenment where a child is thrust into adulthood via an untimely miracle, and significantly, her impulsive self refuses transformation into an underlying, sensible self. On a hamburger telephone that’s since become iconic, Juno calls the abortion clinic whilst the phone periodically crackles and disconnects. Where there’s jest in the obvious dissonance between the sombre conversation and the unconventional telephone, the event is an eloquent summary of Juno as a child forced to make use of ineffective tools to tackle a situation she has little understanding of, and the comical moment becomes stained with our own grief for her. Juno eventually unfolds as the navigation of fear with humour as Juno’s feeble shield, and the audience come to learn that this is not about the fate of the baby, but the fate of Juno herself.
Juno’s flimsy support system becomes a projection of her own resilience, where those around her presume she won’t require their consolation. Paulie himself lacks depth, a running gag in his stereotyping as the ‘mummy’s boy’, complete with a car-shaped bed and reticent, shaking voice. He’s not poised to be an intricate character, but comes to represent much the same as Juno as just another directionless teen, terrified of tackling the consequences of his actions. He remains mostly absent after Juno chooses to give the baby up for adoption, paralysed by the fear of fatherhood, only interjecting her suffering with desultory offers of comfort. Paulie’s cowardice voices Juno’s inner fear whilst courage remains obligatory for her, and the friction between them exposes the inexorable pressure on mothers whilst fathers are granted the privilege of anonymity – as Juno lambastes, ‘you don’t have to have the evidence under your sweater’.
The process of cherry-picking adoptive parents is meticulous for Juno as she battles with taming her imagination, where the visualisation of the perfect family is inescapable. She eventually nominates Mark (Jason Bateman) and Vanessa (Jennifer Garner), her inverse in their resolute strive for the American Dream; her diffidence mingles with her limitless imagination as she seeks out a pair with no traces of herself, or her own, broken family. Where Juno’s haphazard self-styling laughs at fashion-consciousness, Vanessa’s shirts are starched and pressed; where Juno’s house is chaotic and littered with trinkets and novelties, Mark and Vanessa’s mansion basks in neutral tones, punctuated by couple portraits and incense. They’re the cereal-box family, just lacking in children.
Juno becomes entangled in an uncomfortably intimate relationship with Mark, where they both discover respite in the company of the other where they’re otherwise imprisoned by their respective circumstances. Juno stimulates the re-emergence of Mark’s youth through a shared enthusiasm for rock music and old horror films, and in return, Mark bypasses Juno’s pregnant state and instead admires her for her eccentricity and quick wit. The bond is undoubtedly unconventional and entirely self-serving, but it succeeds as a symbiosis, and through it, Juno’s craving for normalcy is at least partially satisfied.
Yet, it’s Vanessa that becomes Juno’s unlikely idol. Though parodied as the ideal woman, sweeping about in high-heels and a pantsuit, her pedantry eventually characterises her as the product of swelling pressure on women to be mothers, and mothers to be perfect. Insecurity and agitation permeate her mask of composure and she habitually aims to impress those around her, only allowing herself brief moments of true delight when she dreams of future motherhood. When the disparity between her vision of familial bliss and Mark’s total apathy towards children becomes overwhelming and they separate, her devastation is rooted in the loss of her final opportunity for motherhood, as opposed to grieving her marriage. Accordingly, where harmony once existed between Juno’s adolescence and Mark’s childish hunger for rebellion, Juno comes to admire Vanessa for equivalent passion, but a passion for something real. Juno witnesses love in its most authentic state, not channelled into fandom for long-dead rock-stars or nostalgia over youth that slipped away, but a genuine devotion to others – an untiring yearning to provide, to protect, and to cherish. Whilst the disconnect between Juno and her own longing for motherhood persists, she learns to recognise the indomitable emotional stamina that being a mother requires, and Vanessa’s determination rouses her to find direction in her own life.
When Juno finally gives birth, it’s a slow-motion spectacle of sweat-soaked hair and hands clutched in a lethal grip. The audience observes the mental and physical bravery of Juno in supreme awe, proudly obliging as substitute for Juno’s absent mother. The event is deeply emotional, but the sentiment is borne out of Juno’s unshakeable determination to realise a fantasy for Vanessa, her profound altruism in this moment of extreme vulnerability. Above the baby’s cot is Juno’s scrawling handwriting – ‘Vanessa, if you’re still in, I’m still in’ – pressed within an ornate frame, as the perpetual binding of Juno’s chaotic disorder with Vanessa’s prudence. Juno becomes as much a story of sisterhood as motherhood; fear is conquered in supportive unison, and a pair of counter individuals learn from one another to become improved beings, improved women. The film speaks beyond its sweet, childlike playfulness as it educates on ambition and self-care, urging its audience to ceaselessly chase desires and embrace selfishness in the name of achieving happiness.
In Tully, Reitman is subtler and far more cynical in his presentation of motherhood as an act of heroism. His depiction of family life is hyper-realist in its unfiltered honesty, and he refuses to glamorise the laborious nature of maternal life. Moments of tenderness clash with moments of consuming defeat, and the intricate emotional affair of motherhood becomes central to Tully. In the opening scene, Marlo (Charlize Theron) staggers downstairs to her son’s (Asher Miles Fallica) bedroom in mismatched pyjamas, bulging pregnant belly peeping from beneath her shirt. Her face remains out of frame, as if she’s defined by motherhood alone whilst all other features of her identity become automatically relegated to secondary. When the face of Theron is finally visible, it’s haggard and chalky, framed by unruly hair; Marlo appears as a cheap copy of Theron’s routinely dazzling self. She’s discernibly exasperated, but the palette is warm and soothing as morning sunlight filters through the windows and spills out over their skin. It’s a vivid and optimistic portrait of how motherhood is frequently imagined, and although it’s tainted by reality poking through in minute details, it’s beautiful. There are gentle smiles, whilst big fingers glide over smaller fingers. Reitman seems to promise that motherhood is worth the tired eyes and aging complexion, offering a glowing insight into the closest experience to heaven on earth.
But the following scene arrives via the obnoxious whirring of a foot massager, eventually seen in the midst of some scattered Lego that hasn’t yet found its way back to the toy-box. Marlo massages cream into her swelling stomach, bickering with her husband (Ron Livingston) over an upcoming dinner at her brother’s house. It’s the miserable antithesis of the previous scene, seemingly mocking its fanciful beauty – and we can almost hear the chuckling of Juno as she makes a sly jab about her lucky escape. School runs are sensory overloads where the television babbles, the dog barks aimlessly, and the children categorically avoid school, forcing out shrieking, scorning and pleading in equivalence from Marlo. The camera hides behind door frames and observes from outside of the car, warning the audience of a mother at breaking point. A cacophony of screeching voices erupts inside the car and the scene cuts to an overhead shot, distant from the car and blissfully silent; Marlo’s world and actuality are separated as distinct realms of reality, and she’s left to suffer alone.
She’s relentlessly greeted, if not gut-punched, by expired youth and restricted freedom, whether in old friends bumped into at the coffee house, or the recurring motif of mermaids in dreams and TV programmes. Whilst the latter is fairly on the nose, Tully is rarely interested in being clever, lacking the energy to be delicately complex. The post-birth montage depicts perpetual monotony, filled with endless nappy-changing, sore nipples, the accidental dropping of phones onto little faces, and sick stains galore. Anticipation of new life has rapidly wilted, and Tully offers a version of reality that materialises for many where precious first moments are contaminated by loneliness and fatigue, and the niggling fear of failure persists. A complicated imagining where moments of bonding are painted as tedious duties, Tully might be considered a pessimist’s scrutiny of motherhood, but it performs best as solidarity with the myriads of mothers unsuccessful in achieving unreachable expectations.
When she finally succumbs to her exhaustion and hires a night nanny, Tully (McKenzie Davis) enters as the bouncy, Samuel-Pepys-quoting youngster in a tiny crop-top. Apprehensions govern Marlo at first, inner guilt commanding her to treasure every gruelling moment of motherhood, but as time creeps on, Tully’s nightly appearance becomes Marlo’s refuge, the ephemeral stretch of the day where she’s treated as Marlo rather than Mom. She airs her self-doubt to someone who truly cares, talking of all that ‘great moms’ are supposed to be whilst she’s impeded by enervation, revealing tastes of an underlying fire that Juno could barely contain, but in Marlo is muffled by lethargy and the demands of parenthood. Her thirst to revive her adolescence is fulfilled by living vicariously through Tully, where gossip is mindlessly indulged in and Sangria is guzzled by the pitcher, and she unlocks an inner duality where she can live freely by the night without it ever polluting her maternal abilities in the morning.
But inevitably, balance is temporary and reality threatens for a mother haunted by youth that perished all too prematurely, and the relentless temptation of sustaining youth via Tully comes to eclipse her desire to be a mother. On a drunken escapade, they escape faceless suburbia to spend a night in a grimy corner of Brooklyn that oozes rebellion and guarantees exhilaration, and they weave their way through countless dingy bars and sweaty mosh-pits. A night of liberty, solidifying kinship – that is, until a car accident is borne out of a frenzied spat over Tully’s sudden resignation.
The floundering relationship between Marlo and Tully collapses beneath its final hammering as an exchange ensues between Marlo’s husband and a nurse, where Tully is exposed as Marlo’s invention, the product of post-natal depression and extreme fatigue. The shock revelation readily slots in beside Marlo’s blunt withdrawal from actuality, reliant upon emotional disturbance as it avoids empty surprise. Her sanity slipped whilst her highs were revelled in, and she left her audience entirely unbeknownst to her mounting suffering as they ached to see her fragmented pieces come together once more. The deep sense of sorrow during the admission seems to stem from total incongruence with Marlo, where Tully’s invasive navigation of her hardship seemingly offered an affinity with her, only to rip it away at the end where we become just one more person to have neglected her pain.
Tully ends where it began, depicting a mother’s life of routine where constancy reigns over bursts of spontaneity, as she chops food into bite-sized pieces for three children who will never recognise their mother’s sacrifice. Her husband emerges beside her at the chopping board, sharing her earphones as he delves into her private world of suffering. Wordlessness is necessary for the couple who may never be able to confront Marlo’s trauma, and the silence is heavy with unspoken apologies that have arrived far too late. And yet, their quiet is equally soothing as their bond shines through their state of turmoil, and they prove that words aren’t required to articulate each other’s scrambled thoughts. The pain is palpable, and this reconciliatory close is far from a tidy fairy-tale ending, but rather, it serves as the promise of comfort through unavoidable, unsolvable hardship – where sometimes, that’s enough.
The resonance of Juno and Tully is contingent on whether the audience’s vision of motherhood is built upon sweet smiles and tender touches, and whether they’re willing to have the idyllic image flattened by reality. Juno and Tully oblige as acts of catharsis, spaces where parenthood can be considered as the petrifying onus that it truly is. Uncertainties aren’t resolved but dealt with, adapted to, and the process of change is seen to bring eventual solace as opposed to looming dread. Truthfully, neither of these films are really about motherhood at all, but the upheaval involved in the transition to motherhood, in having an entire identity uprooted and someone new crawling out from beneath. Juno and Marlo become valuable lessons in seeking support as they battle against insecurity to no avail, and we’re reminded to watch over the seemingly indestructible women in our lives – to be mindful of the vulnerable humans beneath the heroic exterior.
by Beth Piket
Beth Piket is a part-time Film Studies undergraduate, part-time master of chaotic organisation from south-east England. Interests include coming-of-age cinema and Andrea Arnold films, or preferably a combination of the two. Also unapologetically enthusiastic over Disney Pixar tear-jerkers (looking at you Coco). Mainly writing so that one day in the very distant future she can afford the wardrobe of Holly Golightly. Find her on Twitter at @bethanypiket
Categories: Feminist Criticism