Cast: Charlize Theron, Mackenzie Davis, Mark Duplass, Ron Livingston
Director: Jason Reitman
Writer: Diablo Cody
There’s a joke by Jim Gaffigan about what it’s like to have a fourth child which goes, “Imagine you’re drowning, then someone hands you a baby”. Parenthood isn’t just difficult; it is a strenuous, laborious task that gets exponentially more challenging with each additional child. It isn’t just that each child needs constant care and attention, but that they need different kinds of care and attention at different ages and that their demands are both simultaneous and ceaseless. It is a struggle that Diablo Cody, who wrote this film shortly after having her third child, understands well and brings viscerally to life in Tully. This is a film that looks at motherhood with absolutely zero sentimentality. It shows the process of raising children as the exhausting, dirty, stressful task that it is and finds both uncomfortable truths and bittersweet poignancy in its depiction. It is a story that Cody tells with both wit and wisdom and with intimacy and subtlety, delivering an emotional punch that you don’t see coming but which feels entirely earned.
The film follows Marlo (Charlize Theron), a mother of two who is pregnant with an unplanned third child. She has an eight-year-old daughter called Sarah (Lia Frankland), who is reaching that age where self esteem becomes a major issue, and a six-year-old son called Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica) who is somewhere on the autism spectrum (or “quirky” as his teachers put it) and is proving too much for the school to handle. Her well-meaning husband Drew (Ron Livingston) often travels for work and so he is unable to really appreciate the daily demands Marlo faces, never mind help her. Her smug and wealthy brother Craig offers to help out by paying for a night nanny, someone who would come round during the night-time hours and care for the newborn baby while Marlo sleeps, but Marlo turns him down. However whatever fragile workload balance she’d attained at this point is completely obliterated by the arrival of her daughter Mia and it isn’t long before Marlo finds herself drowning from sheer exhaustion and stress. There is a great sequence here that cross-cuts between feedings, diaper changes, breast milk pumping, cooking, cleaning, driving, and the hundreds of other things Marlo has to do as a mother and homemaker. It is a sequence that drives home the endlessly gruelling nature of her routine and the punishing, isolating effects of toil and sleep deprivation; it gets so bad that Marlo can no longer work out when one day ends and the next begins.
The final straw comes when Jonah’s principal suggests that he be moved to a different school, leading Marlo to erupt with a public meltdown. As Marlo breaks down with baby Mia relentlessly wailing beside her, principal Laurie (Gameela Wright) clumsily tries to calm her down and laments that she doesn’t want to see Marlo leave like this. Marlo retorts that she always leaves like this, Laurie just doesn’t see it. At this rock bottom moment, Marlo finally decides that she needs help and agrees to employ the night nanny. Enter Tully (Mackenzie Davis), a 26-year-old free spirit with short hair and a tank top. She’s wide-eyed and earnest, compassionate and nurturing, and wise far beyond her years. She’s not just an extra pair of hands, she’s a confidante and a therapist, there to support Marlo emotionally as well as maternally. “I thought you were taking care of the baby” says Marlo at one point. “Yeah, but you pretty much are the baby” answers Tully. Marlo is drawn to Tully and sees in her the youthful energy and passion for life that she used to have at that age. They spend more and more time together, bonding over sangria and SHOWTIME’s Gigolos, and form a friendship that grows deeper and more profound over time as they learn more about each other.
The chemistry between Theron and Davis is substantial and forms the emotional bedrock upon which the whole film rests. Tully at first appears to be a simple manic pixie dream girl but the more we discover how much she and Marlo have in common and how much they both have to learn from each other, the more complex she turns out to be. At first Marlo doesn’t know what to make of her. The film has so thoroughly shattered the notion that motherhood is in any way enjoyable or wondrous that we’re as baffled as she is to meet someone who not only wants to help out but does so with a spark in her eye and an infectious grin. As Marlo sees more of herself in that spark and smile, it dawns on her just how long it’s been since she saw herself in that way. She wonders whether her old self is gone for good and if becoming a mother has reduced her to little more than a shell. Through Tully’s eyes though she starts to see that there is some of that spark still left and how vital it is to preserve it. It’s not as corny and New Age-y as all that though; in trying to recapture some of her youth, Marlo finds that she must confront some old regrets and admit to some harsh truths.
Tully is ultimately about self-care and its importance to the role of the mother. It’s about how creating a life doesn’t mean sacrificing your own and forsaking the person you used to be. What Marlo ultimately learns is that in order to care for those who depend on her, she needs to be able to care for herself and that she must keep a part of who she truly is at heart alive so that her husband and her children have someone that they can love. It is a lesson that the film imparts in an unexpectedly poetic but still entirely appropriate way. The movie is every bit the fairy tale that Mary Poppins is but its depiction of motherhood is as candid and as unvarnished as anything Hollywood has produced due to the combined fearless honesty and down-to-earthness of Cody and Reitman in their third time working together. With the help of Theron’s authentic rage and weariness and Davis’ angel-like warmth and sincerity, they’ve crafted a funny and moving film about learning to love others by learning to love one’s self.