The last time that star Charlize Theron, writer Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman got together, they gave us Young Adult, a searing yet still moving study of a woman who refuses to let go of her high school past. Now this winning combination has returned with Tully, an exploration of motherhood (which Cody says was inspired by her own experiences as a mother) that is equally poignant and pointed in different yet unexpected ways.
Theron is absolutely spectacular as Marlo, a stay-at-home mom who has just given birth to her third child and is — well, “feeling overwhelmed” would be an understatement. With her caring yet newly promoted husband Drew (Ron Livingston) having to devote more time to work — and the family certainly needing the money he’s bringing in — Marlo has to struggle with the kids by herself, including a eight-year-old daughter with her own insecurities and a six-year-old son who is potentially on the spectrum and may need to be moved to a different school. With the newborn keeping her up at night, Marlo is starting to lose control of her emotions, her senses and her stability.
That is, until her wealthy brother Craig (Mark Duplass) offers to pay for a night nanny — a woman who comes to the house at night to care for the newborn and let mom get some badly needed sleep. At first Marlo is resistant to the idea, but eventually decides to give in. And that’s when the kind, perky and seemingly wise-beyond-her-years Tully (Mackenzie Davis) enters into Marlo’s life, and begins to change it in ways that Marlo perhaps didn’t expect. At first reluctant to engage, Marlo begins to bond with the somewhat whimsical Tully and even sees whispers of her younger self in her invaluable new friend as they share nighttime pitchers of sangria and guilty-pleasure TV.
We could go on and on about Theron but Davis is outstanding too; she’s appealing, fresh and charismatic, with just the right amount of ambiguity to give this seemingly perfect mother’s helper a shade of mystery. As for the two men in this chamber piece, Livingston and Duplass are clearly in the background but Livingston in particular is warmly sympathetic as Drew, a character who could have been just another one-dimensional detached breadwinner but instead comes across as a man who is doing his best to understand something he can never fully comprehend.
With Cody writing from personal knowledge and Reitman directing with a gentler hand here than on his laborious last film, 2014’s Men, Women and Children, Tully completely gets the details and daily travails of parenting right. It’s exhausting, grinding work — a harder full-time job than just about any other — and you can see the effects of it etched on Theron’s face and body and hear it in the tones of her voice. She and Cody are both unafraid to explore the darker side of motherhood: the doubts, the fears, the loneliness, the bouts of depression and anxiety. Tully captures the essence of this to moving effect and Theron boldly throws herself into it.
The movie is also ultimately uplifting in its own sneaky way, even as it goes into murkier territory. There is a point in Tully where the film may start to lose you (we perceptibly felt it), but it changes course after that as the full impact of the story and meaning hit home. If anything, we wouldn’t have minded spending more time with Marlo, Tully and Drew before these realizations sink in: Tully is a bit perfunctory in its latter stages, slighting itself in the process.
But starting as a somewhat dour yet snarkily funny comedy-drama, Tully eventually reminds us in bittersweet fashion that it’s perfectly okay to ask for help, that it’s also okay to take care of yourself — sometimes before you have to take care of others — and that it’s important not to completely subsume one’s self-identity in the process.
Tully is out in theaters Friday (May 4).