As a diehard Juno fanatic (seriously, I’ve seen it at least 25 times), I was understandably excited for the newest melding of Diablo Cody’s sardonic wit with Jason Reitman’s directorial honesty in the form of Tully. Add the magnificent Charlize Theron in the leading role, a profoundly un-glamorous mother named Marlo who has just given birth to her third child, and I was pretty much sold.
In the first several scenes, we see an incredibly pregnant Marlo going through the familiar motions of motherhood: getting her kids ready for school, raising her voice at her daughter who can’t find her glasses, getting the back of her car seat pounded by the indignant kicks of her son, Jonah, who doesn’t tolerate interruptions to his routine. Marlo takes these stressors in stride, with an unmasked exasperation and a dry sense of humor, and the viewer can tell this isn’t the half of what she experiences on any given day. After a meeting with a well-meaning but ultimately condescending school principal, she finds herself in a sun-dappled coffee shop, picking the chocolate chips out of a muffin and giving zero shits about the judgment of another patron, who warned her that decaf contains trace amounts of caffeine that could harm her unborn child.
There’s a sense of dread that haunts these early scenes, and at an uncomfortable dinner party with Marlo’s wealthy brother Craig (Mark Duplass) and sister-in-law, the reason is hinted at, though not fully revealed. It seems that Marlo has suffered from postpartum depression in the past, and in order to alleviate any potential struggle after the birth of her child, Craig offers to pay for a night nanny, a caretaker who will come to her house at night to be with the baby and allow Marlo to get some much-needed rest. She’s resistant at first, but, after the birth of her baby girl brings countless sleepless nights full of endlessly repetitive diaper changes, she calls for help. It’s worth noting here that her husband Drew’s (Ron Livingston) main contribution to childcare is kissing his baby’s forehead on the way out the door.
When Tully (Mackenzie Davis) arrives, she’s the antithesis to Marlo’s swollen drowsiness. She moves effortlessly and energetically throughout their home, somehow knowing where everything is without being told. She’s a wide-eyed, new age twentysomething, and strange in the very specific way that Diablo Cody’s characters so often are. We immediately know that something has changed—where before the camera shied away from the baby, it pans over to show her for the first time, and we learn from Marlo that her name is Mia.
Tully drifts into the house night after night, shrouded in mystery and full of an optimism that would be annoying if it wasn’t so genuine. She makes it clear she’s there for Marlo, to help her recover a little bit of her own personhood by relieving her of some of the more grating parts of being a mother. One morning Marlo comes downstairs to find the house is spotless, as if by magic, and another time she finds a dozen elaborately decorated cupcakes ready for her son to bring to school. There’s something dreamlike about the scenes with Tully, and maybe it has something to do with the recurring mermaid dreams Marlo has had since the beginning of the film. Either way, Tully’s presence at night proves to be essential, and the viewer wonders what will happen when she inevitably has to leave.
Clearly, Tully is a film about motherhood, but what it does with more care than every movie I’ve ever seen is center the mother-as-person, not only through the narrative, but also through some brilliant camera work. When Mia is born, the camera barely wavers from Marlo’s face, and we see her treat the new baby not with indifference, exactly, but with something like weariness. She’s not glowing, and she doesn’t seem to be particularly enamored, either. What this film does best is show us Marlo as herself. As the sticky layers of spilled milk and screaming children are pulled back through her nightly conversations with Tully, we see Marlo as she is: someone who chose a life of familial stability over the turmoil of other possibilities. We learn that this is the life she wanted; yet, like many of us, she struggles with its monotony and her own high expectations.
While this film’s greatest success is a portrayal of motherhood that transcends honesty, a disappointing third act left me (and other moviegoers) wishing for a different conclusion to the story. Any negativity aside, this film is worth seeing for a brilliant performance by Theron and a challenging depiction of the mental and physical toll motherhood can take on a person. At the end of the day, Marlo is a great mother, despite her many doubts, because she treats her children like people. Tully is a story about her learning to treat herself like a person too.
dir. Jason Reitman
Now playing at Coolidge Corner Theatre, Kendall Square Cinema, the Somerville Theatre, and others.