In the last couple of years we’ve seen Charlize Theron battle post-apocalyptic warlords and defeat scores of armed goons all by her lonesome, but that’s not remotely the toughest task she has to face. In Tully, a reunion with her Young Adult team of director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody, she plays Marlo, a mother of three on the verge of a physical and emotional breakdown after too many sleepless nights, too many feedings, and not enough support. Turns out Furiosa had it pretty easy compared to the rigors of modern parenting, but Theron’s fierce performance and Cody’s witty script will have you believing she can overcome anything.
Every ounce of the glamour we’ve come to associate with Theron is drained as she slips into the swollen, fatigued body of Marlo. She’s let herself fall into drastic disarray following the birth of her third child, compounding the daily drama she faces taking care of the other two, one of which appears to be on the spectrum. Her husband (Ron Livingston) is a good guy but busy with work and a little bit oblivious to what’s going on right in front of him. The deep resignation in her glassy eyes is like the thousand-mile stare of soldiers returning home from the battlefield, and we feel her pain even as we chuckle a little bit at her troubles. A perfectly calibrated montage zips us through the nightly feedings, the bottles, the diaper changes, the driving the kids to school, the indignity of being covered in baby vomit and spilled milk but too tired to shower it off. So she just takes her shirt off at the table, to the further-humiliating retort, “Mom, what happened to your body?”
Help arrives in the form of perky 26-year-old night nurse, Tully (Mackenzie Davis), offered by Marlo’s well-off brother (Mark Duplass) who sees his sister’s dire straits. While initially apprehensive about letting a complete stranger watch over her child, all of that disappears when she has the best night’s sleep in years. Tully, who Marlo describes as being like “a book of fun facts for unpopular fourth graders”, is like a gift from God. Plucky, and strangely attuned to Marlo’s needs, Tully tells her that she’s not really there to care for the kids, but for the mother. “You have to treat the whole”, she tells Marlo before receiving an X-rated reply that sparks a whole new conversation. Soon Tully is not only helping with the kids, but helping Marlo and her husband get reacquainted.
Cody and Reitman have a kind of magic when they work together. Their first film, the teen pregnancy comedy Juno, struck the balance between Reitman’s sensitivity and Cody’s snappy, challenging screenplay that would become their trademark as a duo. With Tully we see the further evolution of Cody as a screenwriter as she confronts a number of hard truths with slightly less sarcasm than we’re accustomed to. In its place is an eye-opening gentleness about the joys and pains of being a mother. With such a huge responsibility comes an equal amount of loss; a loss of the wide-eyed enthusiasm of youth. Cody repeatedly challenges our notions of what motherhood is supposed to look like, and does so with all of the insightful humor we’ve come to expect.
Meanwhile, Reitman is smart to let his actors do much of the heavy lifting. The first thing we notice about Theron is her physical appearance, but the transformation she undergoes is more complete than that. As the story goes on we see Marlo, who has lost touch with the optimistic, hopeful girl she used to be, growing more comfortable with the person she is now. And that is largely due to Tully, who embodies so much of what Marlo misses about her self. It’s a wonderful dynamic between them and I hope this is the movie that catapults Davis into stardom. She’s long overdue at this point.
The blossoming friendship between Marlo and Tully has its share of surprises, some bigger than others but all beneficial to the story being told. Don’t let anyone spoil it. While I think Reitman is a little too on-the-nose symbolically (visions of a mermaid, really?) he mostly allows for his leading ladies to carry Tully on their more than capable shoulders. The combination of Theron, Reitman, and Cody is among the best Hollywood has to offer and they have never been better.