There are many parenthood themed films in the world, but few manage to maintain such an air of optimism while being so brutally honest as we see in Tully.
The film opens on Marlo (Charlize Theron), days before the birth of her third child. At the moment, Marlo has a challenging kindergartner on the verge of expulsion, an eight-year-old leaning into issues of self-doubt, and a husband with his own set of insecurities and problems. She is so far past the point of exhaustion she actually forgets she’s pregnant, let alone rushing toward her due date.
Within the first few minutes of Tully, we see the evening routine that includes brushing five-year-old Lucas in a protocol that is supposed to help with sensitivity issues, although no one really seems to know why. She spends a few quiet moments with her daughter Sarah before saying good night to her husband Drew (Ron Livingston) who relieves stress by playing video games.
The morning rush begins with escalating problems and eventually a meltdown from Lucas. This leads to a meeting between Marlo and the school principal (Gameela Wright), who does her obligatory sympathetic head nods as she explains (with all the compassion she can muster) that this expensive private school may not, in fact, be equipped to really help a child like Lucas.
Every moment etches another line of exhaustion into Marlo’s war-torn face, but she keeps going because she is a woman and that is what women do. At the coffee shop, another customer warns her that decaf coffee still has traces of caffeine while looking pointedly at Marlo’s swollen belly. And it continues that night when the family goes to dinner with her affluent brother Craig (Mark Duplass) and his wife Elyse (Elaine Tan). Elyse makes comments that are supposed to be helpful, but sound like more judgment. And Craig doesn’t exactly help matters when he offers to hire his sister a “night nanny.”
All of these moments feel so real and true. They were written by someone who has been in those trenches. Who understands the judgment that women heap upon each other, even while convincing themselves they are just trying to help. And, in fact, they were written by Diablo Cody, who is a mother of two herself. Cody won an Academy Award for her first feature film, Juno, in 2007. In some ways, Tully feels like a bit of a companion piece to that film, which ended with Jennifer Garner’s Vanessa realizing her dream of becoming a mother. It is easy to imagine that three kids later, even the wide-eyed, baby-hungry Vanessa would relate to Marlo’s quiet desperation.
When Marlo’s baby is born and she finds herself barely able to function, she finally gives in to her brother’s gift and called the night nanny. Which is when bright-eyed Tully (McKenzie Davis) waltzes into her life like an angel sent straight from heaven. Tully is a wonder, knowing instantly where things are, what to do, and even having insights into Marlo’s soul. She utters beautiful things, urging the exhausted mom to bid her daughter good night. “She’ll grow a little in the night,” Tully says. “We all will.”
Rest assured, this is not some kind of The Hand that Rocks the Cradle nightmare. Tully is the perfect addition to Marlo’s life. Even more perfect than Mary Poppins. And from the moment she arrives, a peace comes over Marlo, who suddenly has time to do things for herself. She knows to make time to do things for herself. The levels of stress and anxiety vanish almost overnight as she gets to rest and relax. Tully, who at 26, still possesses that optimism that Marlo had at that age. And the two women talk, night after night, forming a bond and learning a little something about each other in the process.
Of course, there is more to the story. There is always more to the story. But to go into further details would spoil the enchanting nature of this film. It is honest and raw in so many ways. And yet wondrous, too. Cody’s script pairs well with director Jason Reitman’s vision. This is their third collaboration, having previously joined forces on Juno, and also with Charlize Theron in Young Adult. And Tully is, truly, the most grown up of the three. It shows filmmakers who have matured, who have learned about life. Who understand that it is messy and ugly sometimes. But also that it is beautiful and worthwhile.
Tully isn’t a perfect movie. There is an unexplored subplot where Drew and Craig both assume the other doesn’t like him. There are suggestions that Lucas may be on the autism spectrum, but it never goes anywhere and no one even so much as suggests having him tested. The end may feel a bit too neat and tidy for some, and maybe it is. But what ensues is a film that tells mothers— and all women—that they are seen, and they are heard, and they are not alone.
Tully is distributed by Focus Features and will be in theaters on May 4.