TULLY. Charlize Theron, Mackenzie Davis, Mark Duplass, Ron Livingston. Directed by Jason Reitman. 96 minutes. Rated M (Mature themes, coarse language and sex).
‘Tully’ is the second film to be written by Diablo Cody (who won an Oscar for her ‘Juno’ screenplay), directed by Jason Reitman (son of Ivan), and starring Charlize Theron. Their previous venture, ‘Young Adult’, focused on a woman in her 30s who was still living a kind of prolonged adolescence, ghost-writing teen fiction and clinging to her youthful fantasies. The trio’s focus has matured, turning now to a struggling mother of three who gets a night nanny for her newborn. Though their subject matter has changed, their winning combination of acid wit and heart has not, making ‘Tully’ a strangely delightful dissection of modern motherhood.
Marlo (Theron) and her husband Drew (Ron Livingston, terrific) have just welcomed their third child into the world. With precocious eight-year-old Sarah (Lia Frankland) and possibly-on-the-spectrum five-year-old Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica) already absorbing a lot of Marlo’s time and attention, baby Mia places some strain on her mental state. Finally acquiescing to an offer from her wealthy brother Craig (Mark Duplass), Marlo agrees to get a night nanny to take care of Mia while she catches up on some much-needed rest.
The film pulls no punches in its unglamorous depiction of Marlo’s early weeks of caring for a newborn – leaky, swollen breasts are pumped, frozen dinners are thawed and microwaved, soiled nappies are changed, pouches of breastmilk are spilled, iPhones are dropped onto sleeping babies, brief naps are stolen in any free minute. Briskly assembled by editor Stefan Grube, a montage of Marlo’s life post-birth effectively conveys the shattering, marrow-deep exhaustion from which she suffers. Theron, who gained over 20 kilograms for the role (‘What’s wrong with your body?’ asks Sarah at one point), looks utterly washed out and drained, which only makes the flashes of humour from Cody’s trademark barbs that peek through her weary façade more tragic. Craig compares Marlo to a match that’s been ‘snuffed out’, and the apt comparison captures the plight of a woman who is not only rendered a shadow of her former self but is also acutely aware of the fact. The young actors playing Jonah and Sarah are excellent, naively contributing to the erosion of Marlo’s sense of self with their nonchalant behaviour.
All this build-up serves to underscore the arrival of 26-year-old night nanny Tully (Mackenzie Davis), who peeks into Marlo’s desaturated life like a quirky ray of sunshine. Davis is wide-eyed and confident, lighting up the screen with her presence. Now able to sleep through the night, Marlo begins to come alive, a happy metamorphosis that serves as the film’s simplest pleasure. As she is revived, Marlo’s spark returns, allowing Cody’s natural gift for sharp humour to bubble up. Tully is not content with simply caring for Mia; ‘You can’t treat the part without treating the whole’, she tells Marlo. During the night, Tully cleans and bakes, and soon Marlo’s conflicts with Jonah’s teachers and strained relationship with Drew are being addressed. As Marlo and Tully grow closer, there happiness is only tempered by the audience’s growing sense of an impending complication.
While Cody’s screenplay is transparently working through some issues, it is sweet and funny at its core. Wryly observed, her characters are intensely human, a realm in which director Reitman is very comfortable. Despite a strange but oh-of-course! last minute twist that pushes the movie towards dream logic, the residing feeling is one peace and appreciation of family.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out May 10.