OnScreen Review: "Tully"

Ken Jones

  • Chief Film Critic

One of the things I love most about movies is that they can be a glimpse into the lives and experiences of others. There is only so much of the world I can experience from my little corner of the globe in Maine, even if it is “the way life should be.” Movies provide a chance from the comfort of a living room or movie theater to see things from someone else’s perspective and partake in experiences that are different than my own.  I love sitting in the darkness of a movie theater, near the front so that the screen takes up practically my entire field of vision, and immerse myself in someone else’s world for that brief bit of time. In a time when we seem to be in desperate need of it, movies can serve as great empathy vehicles as we walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. That may be with a character that doesn’t even speak our language or look the same as me from the other side of the globe, or it can be something domestic but still different from my individual life.

This was the headspace I found myself in after watching Tully, the latest collaboration between screenwriter Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman, having previously worked together on Juno and Young Adult. Young Adult also starred Charlize Theron, though this is a drastically different role from the acerbic one she had in that film. Here, she’s Marlo, a mother of two on the verge of having a third with her husband Drew (Ron Livingston). She has her hands full with her two kids, with her son Jonah having some kind of developmental disorder that they are trying to pin down.

Theron put weight on for this role, about 50 pounds, but the pregnancy bump they give her for the first quarter of the movie is almost comical; to the point I wondered if she were having triplets, her belly is that exaggerated. It’s an impressive transformation and performance for Theron, coming off of Atomic Blonde and the physically demands of that role that she can transition so smoothly and believably between two roles that are so physically different.

The depiction of parenthood seems like one of the most honest ever put on screen. I imagine it could trigger cold sweats and flashbacks and nightmares for some parents when they see it. Marlo is exhausted and overwhelmed, having to tend to the kids mostly on her own as Drew has a lot of critical things happening with his job that require him to travel. After the baby is born there is a terrific montage of the next few weeks consisting of changing diapers, pumping, breast feeding, and life generally revolving around this newborn as Marlo hangs on by a thread.

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Relief comes in the form of a night nanny named Tully (Mackenzie Davis) that Marlo’s brother Craig (Mark Duplass) provides to her. Initially resistant to the idea of a nanny coming in and taking care of their child while she sleeps, Marlo eventually breaks down and calls Tully, who arrives and immediately provides dividends, giving Marlo the little bit of breathing room she needs to get her bearings. Tully could have been the film’s version of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but Davis’ performance resists that label.

About halfway through there are some creative developments with the characters that I found questionable in the moment, but by the end of the film I appreciated what the film was aiming for and what it was actually saying. It’s the kind of film that likely rewards a second viewing and plays very differently the second time through. I think it also has some insightful things to say about women, their roles in family and society, and how demanding life always is, and how different things are at various stages of life. The conversations between Marlo, a forty-ish mom of three, and Tully, a twentysomething, are informative. The depiction of their relationship is a good and healthy one for women of all ages to see on screen. When they decide spontaneously to slip out for a night of drinking it leads to another montage, this time of driving, and it is the least glamorous and demystifying montage of all time as the drive from the suburbs to Brooklyn; it’s a laugh out loud moment in a consistently funny movie.

Tully is an honest and unflinching look at parenthood. It’s also judgment-free. There are no villains or bad guys. Its honesty is often blunt and sometimes brutal, but always refreshing in a way that Reitman and Coady have done so well before in Juno and Young Adult. I enjoyed those movies quite a bit, but this is less quirky and more substantive. Theron gives a performance that is great and I hope does not get lost in the shuffle when awards season rolls around. At a lean 96 minutes, I enjoyed my time with Marlo and her family.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars