Jason Reitman’s fourth collaboration with Diablo Cody stars Charlize Theron as Marlo, a tired mother of three, and her night nanny (Mackenzie Davis) who helps Marlo find herself and heal her family.
Tully unflinchingly depicts the intense routine of the early days of motherhood, with Theron truly playing a woman nearing the edge of desperation. Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman work well together, again, to compose such a raw portrait of motherhood, with both its highs and lows, its absurdities and frustrations. I love Cody as a screenwriter, though I realize that she’s intense and can be a lot for many people to take. However, no one can deny that there’s a true potency to her language that few people can duplicate:
Marlo: My body is a relief map for a war torn country.
Tully: Girls heal
Marlo: No, we don’t. We might look like we’re all better, but if you look close, we’re covered in concealer.
Cody punctuates Tully with lines like this, accentuating the realities of life while also reminding us that we need to laugh at ourselves from time to time. What’s more, Tully is so well made, with a loving attention to the details of family life. Marlo resignedly takes off her proudly clean shirt when it receives a spill.
Reitman and Cody take the time to establish Marlo’s thorough exhaustion from the get-go, even before their newest daughter Mia is born, by following her daily routine. This beautifully and unblinkingly sets up one of the main themes of Tully: adulthood is difficult, but if you can manage it, it can be incredibly rewarding.
But everyone needs help managing.
So, Marlo and her naive, nearly absent husband enlist the services of Tully, a Night Nanny (suggested and funded by Marlo’s brother, played by Mark Duplass). Tully turns out to be a Godsend, somewhat of a postmodern Mary Poppins, healing Marlo, rather than merely focusing on the kids. And yet, there’s much more to it than that. She actually turns out to be much more of a younger Marlo, helping her to bridge the gap between her youth and who Marlo is now. Tully is ephemeral and earnest, exactly what Marlo needs. She picks up all the slack, allowing Marlo to rest, finally.
Tully: I’m here to help you with everything. You can’t fix the parts without treating the whole.
Marlo: Yeah, no one’s treated my whole in a really long time.
Double entendre intended.
Marlo’s husband Drew (Ron Livingston) is of no help at all, onscreen—a major issue I continually have with films. He’s not a jerk or abusive or anything, just persistently uninvolved, putting on headphones and killing zombies on what looks like an XBox when they go to bed. Maybe this is the source of some of Marlo’s desperation? She admits that they make lunch together and that he helps the kids with the homework and their reading, but we only get fleeting glimpses of this. However, as the film went on, it became clear that this is the point: why can’t Marlo cope? She doesn’t have a partner to help her pick up the slack. Yes, he’s there after work, but she continues to do the exhausting, heavy lifting. Both Marlo and Drew learn a hard lesson about this through the course of the film.
There’s not a weak link in the cast here, but of course, exceeding praise must go to Charlize Theron and Mackenzie Davis, whose chemistry is palpable and inspiring. Theron gives Marlo her all, reportedly gaining 50 pounds for the role (and prompting the adorable line from her onscreen daughter Sarah, played by Lia Frankland: “Mom what happened to your body?”). Theron doesn’t go full Atomic Blonde here, going absolutely insane and beating everyone in sight with whatever’s lying about, but she does throw herself into the role with a quiet intensity, looking utterly exhausted throughout. It’s actually hard to believe the same actress stars in both Tully and Atomic Blonde.
Davis, likewise, plays both the hippie nanny and the real woman who’s dealing with problems of her own, sorting who she is and what life is like. She says wonderfully awkward truths that throw Marlo off, but they both play off of one another believably: “You’re like a book of fun facts for unpopular fourth graders,” says Marlo. I’ve not seen Davis really be able to stretch herself like this (though I’ve only seen a season of Halt and Catch Fire), but I hope to see much more of her from now on.
Like Juno with pregnancy, Tully isn’t making a grand statement that all mothers constantly exist at this point of extreme mental fatigue or that child-raising is psychological torture. It’s simply a stark depiction of the realities of motherhood, and that sometimes parents need help handling their situation. There’s a symmetry to Tully, with a reveal and a shift in the end that is deeply satisfying, causing us to rethink the entire film. Reitman’s superb direction, paired with Cody’s razor wit, leads to another poignant film that I did not want to end.
Tyler is a teacher, librarian and the Co-host of The Geek Card Check Podcast. He has been a Film Critic for Ready Steady Cut since 2018.