If you look at the current lineup at your local theater, it’s probably become abundantly clear that we’re on the cusp of summer blockbuster season. Minor studios are starting to finish dribbling out their weaker films (Truth or Dare, I Feel Pretty, Breaking In, etc.), and powerhouses like Disney are just trying to space out their slate of billion-dollar releases so they don’t pick their own pockets. Somewhere, though, amidst all of the stupidity and noise, is a wonderful little movie called Tully, and it is the antithesis of dumb and loud.
Tully is, ostensibly, about a perfectly ordinary suburban mother with too much on her plate. Marlo already has two children (one of whom has a developmental disorder), and she is very, very pregnant with baby number three. Her husband has an extremely demanding job, and spends most of his home time planted in front of the TV trying to unwind with a little Gears of War. When Marlo’s more affluent brother offers to pay for a night nanny after the birth so she can get some sleep, she’s initially resistant. Why should she let some stranger bond with her infant daughter all night? Wouldn’t it be weird? Eventually, after enough sleepless nights, she relents. And then everything changes.
The nanny comes in the form of a vibrant, if unusual young woman named Tully. She’s immediately comfortable in Marlo’s home and with her baby, and seems to have everything under control. Who is this woman? How does she have so much boundless energy? In many ways, she reminds Marlo of herself before she settled down; excited, idealistic, beautiful, comfortable with her body, and full of dreams. As they become closer, Marlo begins to transform. She becomes a more active mother, a healthier person, and starts to rekindle a physical relationship with her husband. Maybe the secret to a happy, normal life is simply to be well rested.
Through this simple premise, director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody deliver a bracingly honest, thoroughly revealing, and frequently devastating story. Beneath the surface, Tully is about so many things it’s difficult to list them out without both ruining the best moments and assaulting the mind with a criminally long run-on sentence. The film tackles the difficulty of motherhood in the 21st century, the ways that once thriving relationships morph and change once kids are introduced into the mix, how pregnancy alters the body, aging in general, the growing realization that you are not the person you wanted to be when you were young, the acceptance or rejection of the “ideal” suburban nuclear family as a path to happiness, and, ultimately, finding a way to make it through dark times.
All of these complex ideas are brought to life through a remarkable combination of sufficient cinematography, phenomenal editing, and at least two genuinely astounding performances. While there were a handful of exceptionally interesting shots, the visual presentation, by and large, is forgettable. That’s not to say that it’s bad in any way, more so that it fails to live up to the unrealistically effective editing found in the montage sequences. It’s not particularly difficult to rattle off a seemingly endless list of films and TV shows that have touched on how difficult it is to care for an infant. Some have used the topic to mine a quick laugh and others for dramatic purposes, but none have pulled back the curtain quite like Tully.
Through a rapid-fire sequence of scenes, the filmmakers brilliantly draw the audience into Marlo’s existence; an exhausting, repetitive gauntlet of dirty diapers, breastfeeding, pumping, sleeping (briefly), being woken up by a screaming infant, and somehow taking care of her other two children at the same time. Every single day her husband plants a kiss on her head and leaves for work, and the cycle repeats. Every day, every night. Considering the level of physical and mental exhaustion the filmmakers were able to convey to the audience in this one collection of moments alone, I’m fairly certain that Tully could be considered a form of birth control. Maybe Thanos should have just shown this film to half of all life in the universe.
In addition to all of this, the film is buoyed by a pitch-perfect performance from Charlize Theron as Marlo. As a memorable performer, it can be difficult to fully embody a character to the point where viewers cease to see them as themselves, but rather the person on screen in every sense (a la Tom Cruise in quite literally everything). If that’s the mark of a great actress, then Theron is assuredly among the best currently working. She disappears so completely into the role, and brings every emotion Marlo feels into clarity with such authenticity that it’s impossible not to understand and commiserate with her. Mackenzie Davis is similarly outstanding as the titular Tully. She moves through each frame with a confident grace that perfectly contrasts Theron’s more halting demeanor. Together, the two have undeniable chemistry that was purely natural and believable.
The only real failing present in Tully is the bewilderingly clunky exposition and the fact that Diablo Cody seems to have completely forgotten how human beings talk when the supporting characters are on screen. Marlo’s husband, generic dad man, oscillates between acceptable and cringingly awkward, and her brother sounds like he discovered a way to phone in the act of phoning it in. The only other issue I found with the film was an excruciatingly bizarre event that occurred just past the halfway point, and elicited some wild, flailing arm motions from me in the theater. That having been said, it was explained in full by the ending, and is actually quite intelligent in retrospect.
I’m starting to view Tully as something of an oasis sitting disappointingly near the edge of a desert. The next few months are essentially going to be an endless expanse of punching, clanking, whirring, and booming franchise sequels. Each and every one of those films could be a genuine masterpiece, but a few months into the awaiting onslaught, it’d be nice to stumble across a gem like Tully, as a pick-me-up to break up the monotony a little bit. So, if you value thoughtful storytelling and compelling explorations of our lives, then drink up now, while you still have the chance.