“Tully” is notable for not just its exposure of the hidden qualms of motherhood, but also the damaging and dangerous ways women cope with that experience. This movie isn’t about some mopey matriach who’s surrounded by a husband and children that don’t appreciate her lactating, cold pizza-serving efforts. Rather, “Tully” is an effective dismantling of the mentality of motherhood, a dive into a damaged maternal psyche that hasn’t quite figured out how to ask for help.
We start off with Marlo (Charlize Theron), a 40-something mom who’s visibly pregnant and invisibly struggling. She takes a brush and carefully smooths it on the limbs of Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica), her peppy second child who exhibits behavior heavily suggesting an undiagnosed mental disorder. Jonah is a perennial source of love and anxiety for Marlo, her willing to defend his supposedly disruptive behavior at school but unable to reconcile his rambunctious kicking and screaming in the backseat of her car. With Jonah’s untamed temperament and child number three ready to make a splash, it seems impossible Marlo or her husband Drew (Ron Livingston) will accomplish any resemblance of successful parenting without drowning in stress.
People are aware of Marlo’s struggle but fail to recognize how or if she is coping with it. Her wealthy brother Craig (Mark Duplass) offers to hire a nighttime nanny for Marlo’s upcoming tyke, an unrelated individual who’ll fill bottles and clean diapers while Marlo and Drew drift into an undisturbed slumber. Marlo questions whether a nighttime nanny is useful or realistic but eventually relents, with the dreamlike Tully (Mackenzie Davis) appearing at her door, enthused and prepared for her late-night, child-rearing duties.
Tully is what Marlo might have been like in her mid-twenties, a fly-by-night spirit with colored hair, carrying an undying sense of enthusiasm for her future and the world. She converses in Buddhist philosophies and bits of bar trivia, revealing little about herself but frequently poaching Marlo for answers about her marriage and livelihood. Tully enables Marlo to be more energetic and fervent during the day, wearing an authentic smile as she cooks elaborate meals for her family and going the extra mile on her jogs in the wilderness. And with Noah adjusting quite well at a new school, it seems this vagabond nighttime nanny might be the solution to all of Marlo’s daytime dilemmas.
Directed by Jason Reitman and written by Diablo Cody, the same pair behind “Juno” and “Young Adult,” “Tully” shares those films’ expertly-crafted themes about dull domesticity and the strange visitors who encroach upon it. For “Juno,” that visitor was a baby and for “Young Adult,” it was Theron’s wannabe mom and wife. The visitor in “Tully” is its namesake character, but unlike “Juno” and “Young Adult,” Tully is considered more prophet than pariah.
Reitman captures this theme perfectly through his close-ups of Marlo and Tully, intimate shots that make us feel like we’re conversing with these characters, but structured at a distance so we never quite know what’s brewing in Marlo and Tully brains. Cody’s screenplay is subtle and occasionally drags, but gradually reveals its wisdom and brilliance as the movie marches forward. She’ll get praise for realistic portrayals of breast pumps and forced hospital urination, but Cody deserves adulation for making us question what realistic motherhood actually looks like.
Theron shines as the bleak Marlo, her half smiles and scrunched posture capturing the silent struggle of a mom who isn’t aware of how much she’s struggling. Davis is exemplary as Tully, conveying the youthful energy and fortune cookie wisdom of someone who just moved to Brooklyn and is suddenly artistic. Their chemistry is palpable, with Tully and Marlo just one deep conversation away from ditching the kids and heading off to Mexico “Thelma and Louise” style. But even though Tully’s adventurous spirit develops a strong grip on Marlo’s mindset, the nanny still knows that Marlo has to fight this battle at home, regardless of who her enemy may be.