Charlize Theron plays an exhausted mother, Mackenzie Davis plays her cheerful nanny, and their story does not go where you would expect.
They say the universe never gives you more than you can handle, but you don’t have to scan the news very hard to find tons of evidence that proves that’s not true. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by this topsy-turvy world of ours, with an ever-looming tidal wave of responsibilities that only gets larger and larger with each passing year. The urge to scream, to escape, or – if possible – get a free night nanny who solves all our problems while we sleep is completely understandable.
Which brings us to Tully, a movie about an exhausted mother of three who can’t catch a break, until she finally caves in and accepts her wealthy brother’s offer of a night nanny. Charlize Theron plays Marlo, whose life has become an endless montage of managing other people’s expectations, and Mackenzie Davis plays Tully, the spritely young woman who enters Marlo’s home at night, bakes cupcakes to dazzle the other moms at school, and gradually rekindles Marlo’s spirit of optimism.
The problem with a film like Tully, after you watch it at least, is that to understand what makes it work – and it works very well – you have to either see it for yourself or spoil it for everyone else. It’s easy to hear about the plot and the characters of Tully and mistake it for a family-friendly film, like Mary Poppins but without the musical numbers or animated penguins. But more’s going on than that, and the movie unveils its more complicated themes meticulously as it goes.
But at its worst, Tully does check off some familiar boxes. Marlo and Tully bond over drinks and go out dancing and discover they’re more alike than Marlo realizes. Meanwhile, Marlo repeatedly describes her life in depressing metaphors, while Tully repeatedly flips those metaphors around so that she sounds beautifully enlightened. It would have been more effective if her technique was less predictable. Tully doesn’t so much seem wise beyond her years as she seems well-rested, energetic and good with word games.
Again, that’s the kind of the story that could easily dip into saccharine wish-fulfillment, but Tully isn’t a particularly sweet film. It’s abrasive, and it should be. Those of us in the audience who have never been a parent need to understand the pains of Marlo’s daily life as well as her fraying mindset, and director Jason Reitman – working with a clever, and seemingly earnest screenplay by Diablo Cody – deftly illustrates Marlo’s struggles. We’d call for a night nanny too, if we could afford one.
Tully, the movie, is funny and exceptionally well-acted, with Charlize Theron in particular once again proving she’s one of the most versatile and nuanced performers working today. Her body language conveys exhaustion with every tiny gesture, which makes her sudden bursts of energy all the more surprising, and dramatically exceptional. She bursts into righteous anger at the principal who finds her “quirky” son too challenging, and tries to spin his obvious expulsion as a polite dismissal, as if there was any meaningful difference, and when she knocks the baby carrier – with the baby inside – into a desk on her way out, she’s been doing the motherhood thing long enough to know her baby is fine, dang it. It only sounded bad.
Tully isn’t a film about contrasts, it’s a film about duality. The Disney-esque plot and the acidic tone could, in a less carefully crafted movie, have been at odds with one another. But by the end of the film, Tully reveals that getting distracted by one side of your personality leads to a dangerous neglect of the other, and that goes for you and the way you look at people you know. It’s easy for Marlo’s husband, Craig (Mark Duplass), to ignore Marlo’s plight when it looks like she’s getting her job done. And that speaks very poorly of him.
There have been many films about cheerful family interlopers who enter at just the right time, work their magic, and then leave. Most of them have very little point beyond “family is good” and “don’t spend too much time at the office.” Tully avoids that hackneyed pitfall. Whether you figure out where Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody are going with this early on, or whether the conclusion the film draws hits you like a ton of bricks, you’re left with a rather poignant observation about taking care of your own mental health, and the mental health of the people you care about. And the way it pulls that off is clever, subversive, and entertaining.