“Tully,” a movie about motherhood starring Charlize Theron, is generating a heated conversation about its portrayal of postpartum depression, a subject rarely depicted on-screen.
Now Diablo Cody, the writer of the film, has addressed the controversy.
“I don’t want anybody to think that I sat down and thought, ‘Oh, I’ll write a gripping and entertaining movie about something that I know nothing about,’ ” she said. “I would never presume to do that.”
The movie opened last week. But Ann Smith, president of the nonprofit group Postpartum Support International, said her organization has been fielding complaints about the film since March, when spoilers began to circulate.
“The mommy world is up in arms,” she said, referring to survivors of perinatal mood disorders, diagnosed in one out of every seven women during pregnancy or postpartum. “I can see why there’s a lot of anger out there, and I think they have a right to it.”
Smith said she was fine with the way the film’s early scenes portray depression but criticized how the comic/drama resolves those issues.
These disorders “can be overwhelming, destructive to families and potentially life-threatening if not treated,” Smith said.
She took particular issue with the film’s trailer, which shows Theron’s character, Marlo, an overburdened, sleep-deprived mother of three with a distracted husband, slogging through her pregnancy and the seemingly unending tedium of caring for a newborn. She pumps breast milk, soothes her baby to sleep atop a humming dryer and lets out a primal scream in a parking lot. Then a night nanny named Tully shows up, promising to make it all better.
Some women have identified with this messy, uneven portrayal, arguing that early motherhood is not about being blissed out, it’s a lattice of complex emotions.
”Now there’s a movie for moms,” Sarah Whitman, 37, a writer and mother of two in Tampa, Fla., thought after she saw the trailer. “One that validates how hard the daily grind can really get.”
But after hearing about the film’s ending, Whitman agreed that the trailer was misleading and wrote an article explaining why she won’t be seeing the film.
Major spoiler alert
(If you don’t want to know what happens in the movie, stop reading here.)
In the film’s big reveal, we learn that Tully was a figment of Marlo’s imagination. Though her condition is not named, Marlo appears to be suffering from postpartum psychosis, a rare and dangerous temporary mental illness that affects about one in 1,000 women after they give birth and requires immediate help.
“It just made me feel sick,” said Whitman, who explained that she had severe anxiety during her first pregnancy and depression afterward. “Had I gone to see it [the movie], I know that it would have triggered me and upset me quite a bit.”
Diana Spalding, 35, a midwife and pediatric nurse from Philadelphia who has seen the film, said it’s so realistic that it ought to include a warning.
“For someone who’s struggled with postpartum depression or psychosis, it can be triggering,” said Spalding, who said she had wanted to see Marlo in treatment and for the film to make it clear “that there’s no shame in getting help.”
But Marlo’s failure to get help is exactly what Cody intended to portray.
“The movie is actually about her lack of treatment,” Cody said. “Sometimes what you’re desperate is for someone to say: ‘Hey, I actually see what’s going on here. This is serious, we need to deal with it and there’s a name for it.’ And Marlo doesn’t get that comfort in this film. Because the film is meant to be uncomfortable.”
Those who have come to the filmmakers’ defense agree.
“It seems like we live in a day and age where everything causes a trigger for somebody or is politically incorrect in one way or another,” wrote Mercedes Tiffany Murphy, 44, of Hudson, Mass., on Facebook. She, too, has experienced postpartum depression, but that didn’t influence her feelings about the film.
“It is art and an expression of creativity,” she wrote. “There have been many times where the movie has nothing to do with the advertisements and trailers.”
Cody is sympathetic
Cody said writing “Tully” after the birth of her third son was a “deeply personal” emotional exercise.
“I do think I’m transparent about the fact that I have had mental health issues,” Cody, 39, said. “My heart goes out to anyone who’s dealt with this, honestly. Because it’s so ignored.”
Cody, who had no input in the editing of the trailer, said that dramedies like “Tully” can be difficult to promote.
“I’m frankly not surprised that the studio chose to emphasize the warmer, more relatable comedic elements of the movie,” she said. “The purpose of marketing is not to educate or to responsibly inform the consumer. They’re trying to sell tickets.”
Jason Cassidy, president of marketing at Focus Features, the film’s distributor in the United States, said, “It was our challenge when marketing the film to find that balance between telling the story of ‘Tully’ without giving away the ending.”
Cody, when asked if she had spoken with any experts on maternal mental illness before writing the script, said she “absolutely did not” and stands by that decision.
“I have had my own experiences and my own research,” she said. One movie cannot possibly tell everyone’s story, she added. “So why can’t we have 10 more movies?”