TULLY uses Wit, Warmth, and Honesty to Show the Struggles of Motherhood

Charlize Theron and Mackenzie Davis captivate in the latest collaboration from Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman

In just over a week, millions of Americans will celebrate Mother’s Day, taking a 24 hour period to shower their matriarch with attention, affection, and in most cases a well-meaning but woefully prepared breakfast. It’s often an outlier, a short window where burdens are lifted and efforts appreciated that are overlooked the rest of the year. It’s timely then that Tully arrives in theaters this week, a dramedy that presents a warm, witty, and entirely unvarnished look at the struggles of motherhood.

Charlize Theron plays Marlo, a women on the verge of giving birth to her third child. Her eldest, Sarah (Lia Frankland), is a precocious sort, reaching an age of increasing awareness and sensitivity. Her second, Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica), has been labelled as “quirky,” a tag that seems the politest way to say he’s on the spectrum. His need for precision in his daily routine only adds to Marlo’s stress levels. Her husband Drew (Ron Livingston) is, in all, a good father, but after working long hours has a tendency to retreat into video-games every evening. Their communication is as lacking as their intimacy. Along comes newborn Mia and a new wave of responsibility for Marlo, whose older (and wealthier) brother Craig (Mark Duplass) senses and decides to help by insisting on paying for a night nanny to help her out. Initially reluctant, Marlo eventually allows Tully (Mackenzie Davis) into their lives, a luminous free spirit who instantly brings harmony to Marlo’s life and family. Her dependence on Tully begins to grow, but as they bond, their relationship starts to draw out bigger issues that plague Marlo.

Tully marks the third collaboration for writer Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman, fourth if you count his turn as producer on the criminally underappreciated Jennifer’s Body. Their first venture was Juno, a film about a girl being forced to grow up. Then came the brilliant Young Adult, where Charlize Theron excelled as a woman who was refusing to grow up. In Tully, we encounter a woman consumed by the responsibilities of adulthood, or more specifically, motherhood.

The arrival of Tully seems to offer Marlo the best of both worlds. A vibrant helping hand, Tully reconnects her to her youth and with a sense of freedom and control over her life. Her presence opens up plenty of reflection within Marlo about the nature of sacrifice that comes with motherhood, the changes we undergo. Aging, responsibility, financial issues, societal judgment, monogamy, things that affect a person’s capabilities as a parent and a partner, as well as an ability to look after one’s self too. This question of identity is a strong theme running through the film, one that lays the seeds for some interesting developments later on, especially as Tully’s presence starts to make a bigger impact on the family dynamic. The ending is one that may surprise some, but it’s one that gracefully becomes apparent, reinforcing the reality of Marlo’s life and much of the film’s underlying message.

The commitment by Theron to this role is extraordinary, both physically and mentally. Her weariness pulsates through the screen; you truly empathize with her and feel sparked by her attempts to reclaim control and some semblance of her youth and vitality once again, and you too are dampened by the blows she takes. From watching her scream in a parking lot, to joining her daughter in kid karaoke, or seeing her unleashed in a mosh pit, you truly feel for her. Even watching her tackle a plate of nachos while watching reality TV is one of the most enthralling scenes I’ve seen this year. Mackenzie Davis (Black Mirror — San Junipero, Halt and Catch Fire, Always Shine) continues to mark herself as a special talent, imbuing Tully with a free-spirited allure and a disarming openness. There is something intoxicating about her earthly wisdom and hippy mischievousness. Together, these women are captivating. There’s a palpable synergy between the pair that is fueled by Cody’s razor sharp writing.

Cody’s writing is as incisive as ever, but feels even more refined, even going so far as to target the “quirky” tag that has so often been applied to her. Layering in moments and character tics that build depth, she fleshes out these people and their situations. It’s genuinely funny and frequently acerbic humor that tempers some of the darker moments. More than humor, there are scenes and characters that seem to also provide that uplift the film and Marlo need at times, a beautiful “let’s be trees” scene encapsulating how a little kindness and support can mean the world to someone consumed by their lives and responsibilities. Reitman’s direction helps with these mood shifts, at times grounded and stark, at others more dreamlike, weaving together the array of states in which the psyche of an overworked mother may often find herself. Musical choices are also effectively deployed to underline characters’ intent and emotional states.

It’s another remarkably affecting collaboration from the pair, a “warts and all” look at the toll pregnancy and motherhood can take on someone, both physically and mentally. The darker aspects of motherhood are woven in very tenderly, painting Marlo as a typical woman, a mother doing her best as they generally all are. Mothers are not the invincible forces of nature some of us believe or hope they are. Most will work themselves into the ground even without being asked, out of duty, out of love, sacrificing needs and dreams for new ones that come into their lives. It’s insightful fare that asserts the importance of maintaining identity, and how support is essential to that. An unvarnished portrait of motherhood that should educate, as well as draw empathy.

Tully takes the wit and tenderness of Juno and meshes it with the blacker elements and honesty of Young Adult to create a perfect portrait of an imperfect mother. Theron and Davis excel, providing the perfect conduit for Cody and Reitman’s latest tale, charting the highs and lows of motherhood. A poignant and intimate reminder that such responsibility shouldn’t consume anyone, and we should all do our part to help, not just on Mother’s Day.

Tully opens on Friday, May 4, 2018.

Previous post The Archivist #83: DOLLAR FOR THE DEAD (1998) + JUDGMENT NIGHT (1993)
Next post Audiences Get Taken for a Ride with THE CON IS ON!