Sleepless nights. Relentless crying. Breast pumps. Baby weight. Standing on Lego bricks. Motherhood is messy and all a bit too much for Charlize Theron’s exhausted Marlo in Tully, the new film from Juno’s Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody. We meet Marlo as she’s about to have her third child with husband Drew (Ron Livingston), but theirs is a far from perfect family. Marlo struggles to bond with eldest daughter Sarah, anxious son Jonah can’t settle in school and Drew spends most nights lost in video games. The arrival of baby number three only pushes Marlo further into an emotional malaise.
Enter Mackenzie Davis’s Tully, a free-spirited, twentysomething ‘night nanny’ who comes after dark to take care of the newborn and give Marlo chance to sleep. Tully is part-Mary Poppins, part-Yoda. She bakes cupcakes, cleans the house from top to bottom and delivers philosophical pearls of wisdom that belie her years. She doesn’t judge Marlo for feeling overwhelmed by her children, or for bingeing mindless reality TV (Gigolos, if you’re wondering). Instead, the pair forge a quick bond and Marlo’s mood is soon lifted.
Director Reitman opens the film up as it progresses in order to make it feel more cinematic, but Tully is at its sharpest and most effective when it’s operating as a focused character study. That’s largely down to Theron’s committed performance. She brings a deep melancholy to Marlo before gradually rekindling her inner fire. This is a vividly drawn portrait of postpartum depression, and the turbulent nature of living with three people (four if you include Drew) who depend on you to make it through the day.
Her kids can be unwittingly cruel – like when she takes off her juice-stained top at the dinner table only to have her daughter ask matter-of-factly: “Mum, what’s wrong with your body?” – but Marlo still battles on wearily, armed with Cody’s typically sharp one-liners. It’s staggering to think that less than a year ago Theron was brutally taking out KGB agents in Atomic Blonde. From there to Tully is some transformation.
Davis, too, is impressive in the titular role, making the most of her limited screen time and the character’s enigmatic nature. At times Tully sails uncomfortably close to the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope, but Cody’s script works hard to subvert that by taking the film to places you wouldn’t necessarily expect. How you react to this will likely colour how you view Tully once the credits roll. In all honesty this was a turn I didn’t quite buy, clashing against the workaday problems Marlo faces as she strives to keep herself, and her dysfunctional family, on track.
That said, there’s still an awful lot to like about Tully. Reitman and Cody, who broke through together on Juno before reuniting for the criminally underrated Young Adult (also featuring Theron on terrific form), seem to work better together than they do apart. All three of their films feature lead characters using caustic wit to mask insecurities, yet they’re still able to inspire empathy and understanding without veering off into sugar-sweet sentimentality.
A few years from now a film like Tully could well end up being buried away on a Netflix carousel, never to be seen or heard from again. That would be a real shame because, despite its trouble sticking the landing, it houses a phenomenally good movie star performance from Theron. If you’re at all tempted by Tully then it’s worth seeking out on the big screen. The future of films like this depend on that support.
Tully is out in UK cinemas from May 4th.