Charlize Theron is a mother on the edge of a break in Tully
Director: Jason Reitman Starring: Charlize Theron, Mackenzie Davis, Ron Livingston, Mark Duplass Running Time: 96 minutes
When Diablo Cody is in a reflective mood, Jason Reitman tends to benefit. Though it will always be a divisive film based on its subject matter and the ‘hamburger phone’ of it all, Juno‘s rooting in the real life experiences of Cody as a teenager and the stories of adoptees and pregnant teens in her life gave it a laudable emotional honesty. The writer-director pair came back together for the underseen Young Adult, a darkly funny and deeply insightful look at arrested development, and the toll taken on the popular girl when she isn’t popular anymore, with a fantastic lead performance from Charlize Theron. Nearly seven years on, the now-trio have convened again for an honest look at parenthood in Tully. The result is raw, sly and very well done.
It goes without saying that Theron is a considerable talent who’s always energised by great material, and she plays the part of beleaguered mother Marlo perfectly. If you’re looking from very far away (the 1950s say), Marlo has the ideal American life, almost boringly so; living in a nice house in the suburbs with a nice husband with a good job in Drew (Ron Livingston), a young boy and girl with a third child on the way and her wealthy brother Craig (Mark Duplass) is a regular and supportive presence in their lives. Of course it’s not as simple as that though, and every family has their challenges; Drew is busy a lot and having a well-off family member has its own complications and brothers are annoying. Raising children is no picnic, and when it is a picnic it’s a messy one and another pregnancy has its own stresses and strains. In addition, Marlo and Drew’s son Jonah has an undiagnosed disorder they’re still trying to figure out and people keep calling him “quirky”, a patronising and unhelpful rug to brush the elephant in the room under. Mavis loves her family but she’s at her wits end. When baby Mia is born, it’s wonderful, but new babies don’t tend to supply a bounty of fresh wits with them. Through montages, we see the difficult job this mother faces, mostly alone. Craig offers to pay for a ‘night nanny’ to take some of the pressure off, but his sister balks. Until she can’t anymore.
Enter Tully, the peppy professional, played by Mackenzie Davis. Tully is friendly but frank, confident and full of youthful exhuberance, working the night nanny job to help pay for college and its lifestyle. Arriving in the evenings while the other kids are in bed and Drew is either off on business trips or playing video games, she flies over everyone else’s radar but is a godsend to Marlo. She’s great with Mia, but more importantly she’s great with her mam. She listens, she’s a proactive and productive presence and just by having somebody to really talk to, Marlo feels like she’s doing better. Davis and Theron pair off very well together and it starts to seem like Tully is rubbing off on her boss. People start to notice the upturn in Marlo during the daytime; she seems brighter, more fun, productive, even her sexually adventurous side comes out, to Mr Dependable Drew’s surprise and delight. It looks ideal. Again, from afar.
Tully moves at a zippy pace that suits its simple premise and plays to the strength of relatable montages. Since the Tully/Marlo relationship is so key, it might go a bit too quickly though, the leads are so illuminating together that more screentime together would be very welcome and help the film’s message hit home all the stronger. Theron’s witty, weary performance is so easy to root for and such an evenhanded, believable look at a parent under pressure (Cody herself has three children along a comparable timeline), Tully’s impact starts to feel trite, like a Manic Poppins Dream Girl. Cody knows trite though, and how to play with it, taking the story to a risky but very impactful place. It’s a postpartum companion to some of the messages of Juno, a reflection on the parts of a person they leave behind when they start a family. The ‘new you’ is part of that family too, and they need looking after as much as any other member. The best moments of Tully are some of its writer’s best work, and with Theron on top form, the result is a film that’s easy to recommend.(3.5 / 5)