Mother of three Marlo is overwhelmed, her husband Drew is almost absent, only doing a minimal amount of parenting. Her son suffers from emotional and developmental issues, not to mention that she has a new baby. Clearly knackard and stressed, Marlo’s brother Craig recommends getting a night nanny to help out until the baby, Mia, is able to sleep through the night.
This marks the second collaboration between director Jason Reitman, writer Diablo Cody (the team behind Juno) and actor Charlize Theron since their 2011 comedy-drama Young Adult. For those familiar with Cody and Reitman’s work, you know that they deal with some really personal subjects in cutting, perceptive and cineliterate ways. There are references to family invasion films when Marlo says that getting a stranger to take care of their baby might lead to her being the only survivor of some sort of killing spree like in a Life-Time Movie or Curtis Hanson’s 1992 film The Hand That Rocks The Cradle. But there are also highly skilled cinematic devisees, like the way that Tully and Marlo drive to Boston while listening to an entire Cindy Lauper album, but we only hear snippets and the passage of time is told through the skipping of the songs.
Tully seems to combine the issues of pregnancy, motherhood and responsibility that Juno tackled with the midlife crisis of Young Adult to give a fully released and grounded portrayal of someone on the verge of breaking. Diablo Cody is known for the way that she is able to cut right through the social niceties to get to the dark secrets and truths of a situation. Marlo’s son Johna is “A-typical” however everyone, including Johna’s school principal, uses the word “quirky” to be polite. At the end of her rope and, when the principle says Johna is no longer welcome at the school, Marlo breaks in one of the most satisfying rant scenes since Uncle Buck’s “I am going to have a rat gnaw that thing off your face”. From there it doesn’t let up, Marlo is overworked balancing baby responsibilities and caring for her other children. This again is shown through a great montage of misfortune and monotony. This is motherhood in all its ugliness and reality, far from the “blessing” that everyone else says it is, this is the late nights, no sleep, the mindnumbing conversations, no time off, no nice clean clothes and nothing for you. However this all changes when Tully appears, then it shifts to an exploration of Marlo’s character and the nature of what it means to be 30, a woman and to be a parent. There are some great lines and great truths spoken in film, yes they are in the trailer, but when they are spoken in the film it does not lessen their impact.
Charlize Theron is remarkable in this film, gaining 50 pounds to take up the role, giving a relatable performance which never feels forced or fake. Each exasperated look comes from a place of truth, and is perfectly exemplified by a scene when she serves frozen pizza to her kids and one of them spills their drink on her top. When she removes it to reveal her postnatal body, her oldest comments “Mom, what’s wrong with your body”. The look Theron gives that child is priceless, tragic and hilarious all at once; it is the look of someone realising their situation, and seeing the light at the end of the tunnel go out. However, it is not just Theron that could have done this alone, this is also thanks to the performances from the other actors, like Office Space‘s Ron Livingston as Marlo’s shlubby husband Drew, who Marlo constantly reaches out to for help, but he is off playing video games. He has some of the most unintentionally/intentionally moments in the film as well as making an important comment on parental gender roles and the effect that it has on both partners.
Then there is Mackenzie Davis, from the only happy episode of Black Mirror, who is spellbinding as the titular, almost-Mary-Poppins Tully. She is perhaps the antithesis’s Marlo at the start of the film, an exuberant free spirit that is the spectre of Marlo’s past. While Marlo and Drew start off as tragic figures, drudging from day to day half asleep, watching awful reality TV shows about Gigalo’s, Tully comes in like a manic pixie dream girl (done right) to help Marlo in any way she can. She cleans, makes cup-cakes, boosts Marlo’s self-confidence and stay up with the baby as Marlo sleeps. She is the ointment and the glue that holds Marlo together. While Johna, the baby, Drew and her other responsibilities grind her down Tully is there with sage advice from someone that is wise beyond their years.
Despite dealing with weighty subjects, the film never feels worthy, never overplays its hand to tug on your heartstrings and that is what makes it all the more emotionally impactful, making its way subtly, through just enjoying the chemistry between Marlo and the other characters. This is especially true of the relationship between Marlo and Tully, who, over the course of the movie, really bond and grow as people.
Unfortunately, there are faults in the film, the ultimate twist while shocking and for me didn’t affect the emotional conclusion of the film, may seem out of place to some people. I also personally found the countless dream sequences a little odd, but I am sure it is something that will be understood on a second viewing. The final reveal does also somewhat ruin the film that came before it. It causes you to question the person that you spent an hour and a half with and examine the plot closely to see whether there were clues and, while it fits, it feels unnessassary that the end turns out to be the case. It may also seem slightly offensive thanks to the recent claims by mental health advocacy groups that Tully may not be as sensitive as it appears to be. However, one must take into account that a film cannot be all things to all people.
Overall though despite these issues, Tully is still an emotionally grounded and subtle portrayal of the struggles of motherhood. It has a tight script, great performances and one of the best travelling montages I think I have ever seen.
You can watch Tully in cinemas now