Tully (2018)

Diablo Cody’s work as a screenwriter is a bit of a required taste, as her dialogue often slips into overwritten self-amusement. It’s a tough stylistic choice to accommodate in a real-world drama, something she pulled off very awkwardly in Juno and with expert emotional cruelty in Young Adult. For me, Cody’s writing style is more consistently rewarding when it’s paired with an over-the-top premise that matches its eccentricity. The coming of age body horror genre beats of Jennifer’s Body and the D.I.D. multiple personality showcase of The United States of Tara frame Cody’s dialogue in its proper over-the-top context. The path to success is much easier in those works than in the grounded realism of a Young Adult, which requires more restraint. Cody’s latest project, a return to collaborating with Young Adult actor Charlize Theron & director Jason Reitman, smartly splits the difference between those two approaches. Tully is, in part, a brutally realistic drama about a woman who feels run-down & unacknowledged in the postpartum aftermath of her third childbirth. It’s also a tense fantasy piece swirling with nightmare imagery & reveries about mermaids that allows for Cody’s more batshit impulses to invade the dialogue & narrative without feeling out of place. I suspect that Tully will be as divisive as any of Cody’s other scripts, as its uncompromising dedication to both the recognizably true and the deliriously surreal are likely to leave audiences split between which side they’d wish to see more of. Personally, I found it to be one of her most substantial, rewarding works – one that fully figured out how to incorporate her eccentric artificiality into a real-world subject without feeling excessively awkward.

Tully begins with an idyllic, calm image of Theron’s protagonist playing mother in a sunlit, almost divine interaction with her son. That illusion is immediately disrupted by the harsh reality of an overworked, underpaid woman carrying her third child while wrangling her other two without much help from her eternally aloof husband (Ron Livingston). Her smug, wealthy brother (Mark Duplass, the Ron Livingston of the 2010s) offers to alleviate some of her blatantly apparent stress by hiring a “night nanny” to watch her newborn baby while she sleeps, affording her more stability in her daily routine. At first, this offer appears to be just as judgmental as every other unsolicited slice of advice about what she should be eating during pregnancy, how she should school her kids, and how much effort she’s putting into the upkeep of her home. As the horrors of daily routine mount to the piercing chaos of The Babadook, however, she breaks down and hires the night nanny anyway. A quirky eccentric with a college-age idealism that’s persisted well into her mid-20s, this Manic Pixie Dream Doula (Mackenzie Davis) completely changes the temperature of the home. The mother finally has the assistance she wasn’t getting from her tragically oblivious husband, but more importantly she has someone to acknowledge her and discuss her daily struggles instead of judging her supposed shortcomings as a homemaker. Still, although she seems more put-together on the exterior, she finds herself both jealous of & codependent on the night nanny and increasingly troubled dreams of mermaids & car crashes invade her more grounded thought patterns. The night nanny quick-fix is a life-saving miracle that completely shifts the reality of her daily routine, but it’s an Edenic dynamic that can only last for so long before the impossible obligations of modern motherhood come crashing back into the frame full-force.

Written after the birth of her own third child, Tully feels like a very personal project for Diablo Cody, who fills a somewhat delirious character study with plenty real-world detail. The way wealth determines quality of child care, the way fathers conveniently bumble their way past alleviating mothers’ daily responsibilities, and the horrifying tension built through a newborn baby’s incessant screams all feel like knowledgeable, lived experience. Cody’s overwritten dialogue tics are still present throughout, like in the mother’s description of the night nanny being like “a book of fun facts for unpopular 4th graders” or the nanny describing herself being “like Saudi Arabia” because she has “an excess of energy.” There’s also an extensive shout-out to the cult classic Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains awkwardly shoehorned into the film, exactly the way Kimya Dawson was clumsily forced into Juno’s DNA. For some audiences, Cody’s idiosyncratically overwritten style will always be a tough hurdle to clear. Her work requires a little bit of giving-in & good faith on the viewer’s end, but I personally find it to be very much worth the effort. Tully is deeply rewarding as a tense, darkly comic fantasy piece about the routine, real-life horrors of motherhood. It finds a great, delirious headspace that allows Cody’s stranger impulses to feel right at home with its more grounded character study of a woman frayed at the edges by an unfair, impossible collection of daily obligations. From the first appearance of an angelic mermaid disrupting the film’s realistic domestic drama you should be able to tell if you’re going to be onboard with the bizarre balance the film attempts to maintain between the surreal and the all-too-real. If you can accept what Cody’s doing on her own loopy terms, though, you might just find her results uniquely fascinating, even if inconsistent.

-Brandon Ledet

Always Shine (2016)

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I first heard of the psychological horror cheapie Always Shine when its director, Sophia Takal, mentioned in an interview on the Lady Problems podcast that she was annoyed by its constant comparisons with the Alex Ross Perry film Queen of Earth, since the two works were produced simultaneously & independently. She even suggested in the interview that Perry may have read the screenplay for her film before writing his own, lightly suggesting that their coincidental parallels might not be so coincidental after all. As I pointed out when I labeled 2014 as The Year of the Doppelgänger, it’s not at all uncommon for doppelgänger films to find their own unlikely doppelgängers in the world. In fact, it’s an eerily frequent occurrence. If you can recall back a full year, though, Queen of Earth was highly rated around here as one of our Top Films of 2015, so seeing a smaller, less celebrated work that might have influenced its production was an exciting prospect for me. Unfortunately, I can only add to Takal’s frustration by admitting that Always Shine was only interesting to me as a comparison point for Perry’s superiorly executed work, and only barely so.

Always Shine opens with two striking, tightly framed monologues that codify its two main characters, played by recognizable-from-TV-roles actors Mackenzie Davis & Caitlin FitzGerald, as a demurely feminine waif & an “unladylike” take-no-shit brute. Best friends, but professional rivals in their acting careers, the two women often find themselves competing for roles, much to the detriment of their personal relationship. The demurely feminine character is rewarded for her sheepishness by the men who control her life: lovers, casting directors, strangers, etc. The confident one is punished for her perceived unfeminine brashness and is professionally unsuccessful as a result, despite being the more talented actor. This tension comes to a head when the two friends vacation together in a remote locale in Southern California, igniting a bottled up nightmare of competitive jealousies that results in a violent confrontation & a disorienting psychological break. Any tension lurking under the surface of their friendship is made explicitly clear & insurmountably cruel, leading the two women to a breaking point that cannot be mended once it’s reached.

I like the basic structure & themes of this narrative and both Davis & FitzGerald are exceptionally well suited for their respective roles. That’s about where my appreciation for Always Shine stops. The gloriously disorienting opening, where you can’t tell where an actor’s audition ends & the real world begins, is a great window into where the film will eventually go once it gets its plot rolling. However, that style of stilted, unnatural dialogue continues throughout the film’s entire length, never allowing either of its central characters to feel like a real person, since you can feel the screenwriter’s fingerprints on every word they deliver. The characters are way too cleanly categorized, to the point where the more confident one says something to the effect of, “If I weren’t a woman . . .” in at least the first three conversations she participates in. This clean cut stageyness bleeds into the way the film’s pinnacle psychological break is depicted as well. Unlike with Queen of Earth, there’s never any question of what a character is imagining & what is “really” happening. This means that its blend of identities & indulgences in fantasy signify nothing in any given moment, since it’s always evident they’ll have no effect on the “true” plotline. Worst yet, the film is overly impatient with its own sense of mood. As soon as the opening credits it begins an assault of quick, abrasive edits that scream “Don’t worry! This is Art Horror! It’ll get weird!” between calm scenes of dialogue that deserve a less oppressive hand in how they’re delivered. In attempting dread & disorientation, the atmosphere-evoking cuts of Always Shine feel like an obnoxious joke at th the expense of artsy horror films as a genre instead of a genuine participation in that aesthetic.

I really wanted to like Always Shine. It’s got all the necessary resources to put together a memorably eerie psychological horror picture, especially in its performances & its basic themes. It just falls flat so miserably in both its screenplay & editing choices that it’s difficult to get on its side. As frustrating as it must be for Takal to continually hear, the film is too reminiscent of Queen of Earth not to draw the comparison and, in all honesty, it often plays like an awful parody version of that far superior work. That’s not the only point of comparison that makes it look like a weak substitute for the genuine thing, either. Persona, an influence both films obviously owe a lot to, smartly jumbles its psychological break in a way that cannot be easily, neatly understood the same way Always Shine‘s can. The Neon Demon does a far better job filtering feminine jealousy & competition through an unrealistic art horror lens. Felt has a much firmer handle on the way feminist themes can be discussed openly & even viciously in a broken psyche narrative while still feeling like natural, human dialogue. Creep, Joshy, The One I Love, The Invitation, and The Overnight all top this near-miss in turning California wilderness locales into emotional hellscapes of isolation & hurt feelings. None of these movies’ successes dictate that Always Shine has no right to exist in the world as its own separate work of art. They just point to the various ways the film’s promising formula falls flat in an embarrassing way, Queen of Earth especially so.

-Brandon Ledet