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Is that you mom? Recent movies redefine what it means to be maternal

Movies like "Tully," "In the Fade," and "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" expand the boundaries of what it means on screen to play a mother.

Charlize Theron in ‘Tully.’
Charlize Theron in ‘Tully.’Read moreFocus Features

Next Sunday could mark a different kind of Mother's Day for those who observe the watch-a-movie-with mom-ritual, in a theater or on the couch.

If you choose to stay in, you could pop in the just-released DVD of In the Fade and watch a rage-fueled Diane Kruger pursue the neo-Nazi terrorists who killed her son.

>> Read more: 'In the Fade': Cannes winner Diane Kruger is riveting

Or you might decide to watch recent Oscar-winner Frances McDormand in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri — her Mildred is also a seething maternal ball of fury and rage, mourning a murdered daughter. She accosts the foot-dragging police chief at the station, then, after not getting satisfaction, firebombs the place.

I thought of Mildred while watching Tully, with Marlo (Charlize Theron) pregnant, angry, barging into a school administration office and letting loose on the principal who's about to expel her son because his special needs are not the right "fit" for the posh institution.

The child is hypersensitive to noise, to changes in routine, and in one scene he explodes in a tantrum that leaves Marlo, driving a car and unable to comfort him, in tears on the side of the road, contemplating an explosion of her own.

She opts instead for coffee, only to have a busybody warn the pregnant Marlo of the dangers of caffeine to the unborn child.

Happy Mother's Day?

>> Read more: 'Tully': In the funny, touching movie, the nanny is there to care for mom 

As it turns out, Tully is an apt choice to mark the occasion — a sometimes heartrending, often funny, and above all truthful look at the reality of carrying, delivering, and raising children.

Taken together with Fade and Billboards, Tully also shows that as roles for women evolve, actresses are gaining a wider behavioral latitude, expanding definitions of what can be encompassed on screen by the word mom.

"We're always supposed to portray parenting as such a blessing. [Marlo] actually uses that word in the movie. You're never allowed to say, 'This is hard. This is scary. This is changing my life, and I'm not sure I like all the changes. This is making me lose touch with who I am,' " said Tully director Jason Reitman, in town for the Philadelphia Film Society's recent SpringFest. "For all of the beauty there is in being a parent, there are times when it is ugly and it is scary. So it's a taboo subject at a time when nothing is taboo."

Reitman made Tully with screenwriter Diablo Cody, his collaborator on Juno and Young Adult. Motherhood connects them. Juno is about a pregnant teen, Young Adult about a woman — Mavis, played by Theron — who stalks her high school sweetheart when she learns his wife has just given birth. Tully is about a woman with two kids who finds herself overwhelmed by the arrival of a third until she gets unexpected help from a neo-Mary Poppins named Tully (Mackenzie Davis).

"There's definitely a continuity between the three. They all deal with a kind of overarching theme — of not knowing where you're supposed to be in your human timeline. Juno is going too fast, Mavis is growing up too slow. Marlo faces her own kind of confusion — they all deal with the fear of not being in the right place in your life," Reitman said.

And they all spring from the mind of Cody. She's written edgy, female-centered movies and programs like Jennifer's Body and United States of Tara, and now is a married mother of three — still bringing that same edge to her work.

Reitman said Cody's lived-in script understands the way mothers can feel alone in a crowded house and constantly judged.

"Part of the movie is this portrayal of a marriage gone quiet," he said. "You each kind of stick to your duties. By the end of the night, you each pull out an iPad and get lost in whatever crossword you're doing or book you're reading. In that version of marriage, it's easy to feel isolated."

Tully is also amusingly fluent in the physical realities of pregnancy, birth, and weaning. When Marlo topples a precious liter of pumped breast milk, she reacts the way her younger self might have mourned a broken bottle of single malt. It's also the kind of incident that causes Marlo, a passionately devoted mother, to succumb to the feeling that the world thinks she's a failure.

"What you see in Tully is that there is always this fear that somehow we are failing our kids. There is a lot of judgment and shame," Reitman said, "And people constantly telling you you're doing things wrong."

Tully, the hyper-competent nanny who shows up to save the day, he said, is the supportive voice that all mothers should have but often do not.

"At this moment where Marlo has so much self doubt, Tully is there to say, 'You're not doing it wrong. It's working. You're doing fine,' " he said.

Cody's most trenchant insight, in Reitman's view: Some of the judgment women feel comes from themselves, or, more precisely, the earlier, younger, more liberated, and unencumbered version of themselves.

"There's something about being a parent — it's the first moment where you start to think of your younger self as a different person. And as a parent, you have this feeling that person is looking at you and gauging the result," he said. "Diablo was interested in that dynamic, and her ability to capture it is the magic that makes the movie work."