Knowing your place

O nly recently have critics and audiences begun to focus on discrepancies in inclusion, both from the perspective of characters and themes, in filmmaking oeuvres, and largely the main target has sought to address gender inequality. We’ve spoken broadly about race, in particular the black-white dynamic, and made pointed efforts to signal a desire to […]

Interrogating the privilege of “Tully”


Charlize Theron reunites with Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody in “Tully”

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

Only recently have critics and audiences begun to focus on discrepancies in inclusion, both from the perspective of characters and themes, in filmmaking oeuvres, and largely the main target has sought to address gender inequality. We’ve spoken broadly about race, in particular the black-white dynamic, and made pointed efforts to signal a desire to avoid the appearance of malicious intent. But does that truly get at the heart of a problem that dates back to the formation of the country and its codes?

More intriguingly, does it help the emerging legion of advocates who, in an attempt to identify concerns, find themselves in the position of looking like nagging harpies or worse yet, artistic censors seeking to impose strictures on the narratives of individual filmmakers who believe they are doing nothing more than telling their own truths?

Take, for example, the case of writer Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman, who previously worked together on the 2011 release “Young Adult,” which also happened to star Charlize Theron, the lead of their latest collaboration “Tully.” Cody is a sharp-witted opponent of the quirks in American society that enforce rules of law and social order that keep women in the crosshairs. She has proven unwilling to fight fairly in this cultural battle and earned an Academy Award for her very first screenplay (2007’s “Juno,” her first team-up with Reitman), proving that she’s a warrior of the first order.

Reitman, the son of director Ivan Reitman, entered the game with an obvious advantage, but followed his mercurial indie muse, detailing the lives of white people who didn’t have (or want) to consider their privileged status in the world. How easy it must be to be a pregnant teen who can wisecrack her way through the situation and fend off the toothless advances of a disaffected white man, when a comparable black teenage girl endures being seen as yet another statistical blight on the
American landscape?

All of the characters in the Reitman filmography tend to exist in these effete cultural bubbles, escaping the harsh glare of critical examination, because to do so would
seem churlish.

I find myself taking real exception to “Tully” though, to the extent that I have to express a level of critical outrage at the explosion, early on, of Marlo (Theron), the much put-upon mother of two (with another on the way, any day) who abusively confronts the principal (Gameela Wright) of the private elementary school her two school-age children attend. At issue is the additional attention needed by Marlo’s son Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica), which the school cannot offer at the expense of the other children in his classroom. Everyone tiptoes around Jonah’s special needs, calling him “quirky” rather than deigning to label him with a diagnosis.

What fascinated me about the escalating situation was Marlo’s moral indignation and the vitriol she directed at the principal, a black woman, who was unable or unwilling to solve this child-care issue. How dare this black woman refuse to meekly cater to the whims of a frustrated white woman?

As soon as I caught myself going down this critical path (and the personal outrage it triggered in me), I immediately began to interrogate my own reaction. Was I being fair to the film, Marlo, and Reitman/Cody? This film is not invested in or interested in engaging in a cultural debate about the history of slavery or the mistreatment of black women or black-white family dynamics. It wants nothing more than to watch Marlo as she navigates her own role as a beleaguered mother and wife in this modern age, which she does with assistance from a night nanny named Tully (Mackenzie Davis) who operates well-outside the prescribed norms, seeking to take care of far more than
Marlo’s newborn.

While I marveled at Theron’s lived-in performance—from bleak desperation to curious awakening—and the mentoring relationship that develops between Marlo and Tully, I couldn’t overcome my anger at the continuation of this American social order that allows white woman to lord over black women with such disdain. Marlo felt entitled to that reaction and Reitman/Cody made sure to silence this black woman, to neuter her authority in that moment. It felt like yet another example of the endless loop that white feminism inflicts on women of color. You’re a woman, so you have a part in this movement, but you have to know your place.

Which means that I couldn’t completely empathize with Marlo at the end of the film. She wasn’t truly a villain in my mind, but there was nothing triumphant in her or her family’s emergence from this trying situation. As a white woman, her happy ending is never in doubt, even as the narrative reveals a psychological flip that calls into question our perceptions of her dilemma. The real twist would have been if we had been able to watch and appreciate how Marlo had to actually earn her ever-after the
old-fashioned way.

Rating: R

Grade: C

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Reach DCP Film Critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com and visit his blog for additional film reviews at TerrenceTodd.com. You can also follow him on Twitter at @ttsternenzi.

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