So much of the cliched wisdom espoused about parenthood tends to focus on the miracle of childbirth, the accompanying joy of seeing your little one grow up and the beautiful but fleeting nature of those early years. While such refrains are certainly not without their merits, such a rose-colored mindset does naturally neglect the fact that sometimes parenthood is incredibly rough. That’s precisely the record that director Jason Reitman’s new film, Tully, is looking to set straight.
Charlize Theron stars as Marlo, a wife and mother who is about to give birth to her third child. Between her son’s difficulty in school and just the everyday monotony of tending to their home while husband Drew (Ron Livingston) works, Marlo is already struggling to keep it together. So her brother (Mark Duplass) suggests she hire a night nurse to offset the added responsibility and ensure her a much-needed good night’s sleep. After some hesitation, Marlo relents, and Tully (Mackenzie Davis) enters her life. Hilarity (but mostly drama) ensues.
With a screenplay by Diablo Cody (Juno) and a producing credit for Theron, it’s clear from the outset that Tully is a labor (pun intended) of love for all those involved. Both women (as well as Reitman) have children of their own and aim to capture a side of motherhood that is rarely captured on film: the sheer exhaustion and overwhelming burden of it all. Yes, having children is one of life’s greatest joys, but Tully isn’t afraid to highlight the perpetual sacrifice one has to make to commit to raising a family. It’s the same no-holds-barred approach that Cody and Theron brought to the tale of a troubled woman-child in Reitman’s 2011 film Young Adult. Yet, while that earlier collaboration was more meandering in its tone, Tully maintains a consistency that, for the most part, works on multiple levels.
Theron carries the film effortlessly, though the Oscar winner rarely disappoints in films that present a true challenge to her considerable acting chops. Tully definitely qualifies, as the entire film is told exclusively from Marlo’s perspective. This approach really puts the audience in her predicament and maximizes our understanding of her mental and emotional state. Juggling multiple kids (including a newborn) with housework, cooking, etc. is such a strain for any parent, and the fact that Marlo is so disconnected from Drew throughout this critical time in their lives only underscores the stress she feels.
In fact, Drew’s rather muted role in the film could almost be considered a condemnation of fathers’ role and support of their partners in a situation like Marlo’s (his nightly ritual includes playing video games while Marlo tends to the baby, for example). But in the end, Tully balances even that out. What could throughout the film — including a somewhat baffling mid-film plot development — be labeled a fundamental flaw in its storytelling winds up playing into the narrative in a surprising and ultimately satisfying way. Parents walking out of Tully with the knowledge of experience will likely feel empowered and/or refreshed by its eventual mission statement.
But, again, the focus of Tully isn’t on Marlo’s marriage but her burgeoning friendship with Tully. The bond between the two women is charming enough to provide some light distraction and even confrontation of the issues currently plaguing Marlo’s life but never overshadows the bleak reality of her situation. After appearances in major films like The Martian and Blade Runner 2049, Davis delivers a solid performance as the film’s manic pixie dream girl/deus ex machina in perhaps her highest-profile role to date. The direction the film takes its title character threatens at times to derail the story, but the real challenge viewers will encounter is in a climactic third-act reveal.
For much of its runtime, Tully presents itself as a simple slice-of-life story about a mother’s adjustment to her family life. Yet, the way Cody’s screenplay is resolved winds up raising more questions than it answers. Audiences may feel cheated by the sudden narrative shift, which retroactively repaints all that has come before. On some level, Tully‘s ending is a stroke of genius, but it would have felt more resonant if the seeds for it had been sprinkled in in a more nuanced way. Regardless, the twist will probably elicit a conversation or two and, in that regard, can be considered a daring move on Reitman’s part.
Tully may not deliver as profound an experience as it seems like it was trying to. Nevertheless, Reitman’s film does have something to say about motherhood and the necessity to second-guess the way families deal with the daily stresses of life. Theron’s performance and the authentic depiction of motherhood are the reasons to see Tully. Although it’s unlikely to make the same splash as films like Thank You for Smoking, Juno or Up in the Air, Tully does mark a return to form of sorts for Reitman, whose last two releases have underwhelmed critics and audiences alike. For fans of his work, Theron or Cody (especially those who are parents), Tully is absolutely a film worth checking out.