Being a mother is hard. Jason Reitman’s Tully doesn’t need to make this obvious point, but what it does do, thanks to excellent performances and Diablo Cody’s sharp script, is illustrate the point beautifully. What makes the movie work so well isn’t just the perspective of the characters, but the world they inhabit. It’s the school that doesn’t want a neuro-atypical child. It’s the wealthier parents who think that having three kids is a breeze as long as you’ve got a nanny. It’s the distracted husband who means well but doesn’t go the extra mile. Tully is about more than one troubled mom. It’s about why being a mom is so hard and how far they’ll go for just a little bit of help.
Marlo (Charlize Theron) is about to have her third child, and it’s not like life has been particularly easy raising the first two, especially her son Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica) who suffers from a neuro-atypical affliction, but everyone just politely calls him “quirky.” With a third baby on the way, Marlo’s wealthier brother Craig (Mark Duplass) offers to pay for a night nanny. The nanny will take care of the baby at night so Marlo can get some sleep, and be an unobtrusive presence in her life. Marlo eventually relents and invites the night nanny, Tully (Mackenzie Davis), into her life. But Tully offers more than just childcare. She takes care of Marlo and provides the companionship and sympathy that has been missing from the poor mother’s life.
Tully’s greatest strength is how utterly unflinching it is. At my screening, I was surrounded by women on all sides, and overheard multiple times affirmation of what was happening on screen. It feels true to life because it is true to life. There’s the constantly feeling that you have to be super-mom and instead you’re at the opposite end of the spectrum, underappreciated and underserved. And it’s not like Marlo is in a bad way. She has a kind (if slightly inattentive) husband, a job that provides maternity leave, and a support system of family, and yet that doesn’t change that she’s outnumbered and totally drained. Tully celebrates moms not through platitudes, but by showing how damn hard it is.
Theron has never been afraid to appear broken and beaten down, and she dives in headfirst into Marlo’s fatigued state. It’s a great performance because we can see that Marlo is not a “bad mom.” The movie opens with her brushing Jonah because it’s supposed to calm him down. She wants to be good for her kids, but she’s so sleep-deprived and adrift that she’s clearly struggling just to keep her head above water. It’s a sympathetic, powerful performance that shows why Theron continues to be one of the best actresses working today.
She’s also wonderfully complimented by Davis. Although at first Tully appears on the scene like a Manic Pixie Dream Nanny, the character eventually finds its rhythm as a way for Marlo to look back on her youth and the choices she’s made. Tully is young, vibrant, optimistic, and simply hasn’t been chipped away like Marlo has. It’s not that aging is bad, but Tully provides a nostalgic look into the kind of life that’s never coming back for Marlo. Even at her most cheerful, there’s something oddly melancholy about Tully’s presence, and it’s clear that the relationship between Marlo and Tully will only become more deeper and complex on repeat viewings.
It’s remarkable to look at the third collaboration between Reitman and Cody (the first two being Juno and Young Adult) and see how far they both have come. Even though both those movies are great, Tully feels like a mature step forward, willing to engage head-on with the difficulties of motherhood. You’ll hear the word “unflinching” a lot when it comes to Tully (I’ve already used it twice!) and with good reason. But with that unflinching look comes all the warmth and heart as well. Tully isn’t a pessimistic look at motherhood. It’s an honest one, and that deserves our respect.