“Tully,” a movie about motherhood starring Charlize Theron that doesn’t open until Friday, is already generating a heated conversation about its portrayal of postpartum depression, a subject rarely depicted onscreen.
Now Diablo Cody, the writer of the film, has addressed the controversy for the first time.
“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.”
Ann Smith, the president of Postpartum Support International, a nonprofit group, said her organization has been fielding complaints about the film since March, when spoilers began to circulate. (If you don’t want to know what happens in the movie, stop reading here.)
“The mommy world is up in arms,” she said, referring to survivors of perinatal mood disorders, which are 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.”
The film’s trailer shows Ms. 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. We watch as 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 quickly identified with this messy, uneven portrayal — because, as any mom will tell you, early motherhood is not about being blissed out and #blessed, 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 reading more about the plot, Ms. Whitman decided that the trailer was misleading and wrote an article explaining why she won’t be seeing the film.
In the movie’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 Ms. Whitman, who explained that she had severe anxiety during her first pregnancy and depression afterward. “Had I went to see it, I know that it would have triggered me and upset me quite a bit.”
The film paired Ms. Cody with the director Jason Reitman, whom she also collaborated with on “Juno,” a darkly funny award-winning film about an unplanned pregnancy.
Ms. 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,” Ms. Cody, 39, said in a phone interview. “My heart goes out to anyone who’s dealt with this, honestly. Because it’s so ignored.”
Diana Spalding, 35, a midwife and pediatric nurse who lives outside Philadelphia and saw the film at an advance screening in April, said it ought to include a warning.
“They made it feel really realistic. So for someone who’s struggled with postpartum depression or psychosis, it can be triggering,” said Ms. Spalding, who wrote a critical review that went viral.
Ms. Spalding 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 the failure to help Marlo is exactly what Ms. Cody intended to portray.
“The movie is actually about her lack of treatment,” Ms. Cody said. In the film, neither Marlo nor her son, who has special needs, receives a diagnosis. (Jonah, Marlo’s son, is mainly described as “quirky.”)
“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,’” Ms. Cody said. “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,” Mercedes Tiffany Murphy, 44, of Hudson, Mass., wrote 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. There have been many times where the movie has nothing to do with the advertisements and trailers.”
Ms. Cody, who was not involved in the editing of the trailer, admitted 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, the 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.”
As the online debate brewed, Ms. Smith of Postpartum Support International found herself under pressure to respond. So this week her organization sent a filmmaker familiar with postpartum psychosis and a leading expert on the subject to view an advance screening.
After watching it, they said the early scenes portrayed depression beautifully but they found the ending upsetting.
These disorders “can be overwhelming, destructive to families and potentially life threatening if not treated,” Ms. Smith said in a statement. She hopes the film prompts a nationwide discussion.
Ms. 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?”