|Original caricature of Charlize Theron and Mackenzie Davis in TULLY|
It’s very early in the year, but the Oscars likely have their first Best Actress nominee. Charlize Theron gives such a commanding, blistering, and raw performance in the new dramedy “Tully” that the Academy would be fools to ignore it. The rest of the film is almost as strong as she is. It’s a complex and affecting film about motherhood from director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody, their third film together. “Tully” explores the overwhelming job that motherhood is and all the sides of it, from the harrowing to the hilarious.
Theron plays Marlo, a New York suburban mom with two kids who’s about to give birth to a third. She’s already struggling mightily to hold it all together. Every day is more to do, less time to do it, and the stress starts as soon as her swollen feet hit the floor. It doesn’t help that her husband Drew (Ron Livingston) is of the old school variety, the kind of man who thinks he doesn’t have to do much around the house because he’s the breadwinner. That means most of the cooking, cleaning, and caring for the kids mostly falls on Marlo’s shoulders. And it’s wearing her down, mind, body, and soul.
Marlo is at her emotional rope’s end. She’s always on the verge, and Theron walks the razor’s edge here, showing every frustration, each harried moment, and all the fatigue weighing down on her character. Marlo is also a physical wreck, a woman who doesn’t get enough sleep and is chronically fatigued. She shuffles around in sweatpants and baggy sweaters as the house gets dirtier, the kids get noisier, and her husband gets lazier. She’s about to give life to a new baby, and yet her own life force is slowly draining out of her altogether.
Complicating everything further is the fact that son Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica) is a handful and a half. He’s got emotional issues and may be autistic. Marlo doesn’t know what to do when her son randomly starts kicking the back of her seat while she’s driving or screams at very irritations throughout the day. She and Drew describe their boy as “quirky.” It becomes a running gag, but the young boy is in need of serious help, and his parents are ill-equipped to help.
Everything is a battle for Marlo – keeping Jonah in school, putting a meal on the table, finding time to bathe, even getting her husband to talk to her. He shuts her out at night, retreating to the bedroom to play video games with headphones on. Oh, and Drew’s brother Craig (Mark Duplass) is one of those rich, over-achievers who can’t help but look down at the messy existence of his sibling’s family so that grates on Marlo as well. She always seems just one step away from having a total meltdown, and Theron’s eyes hint at traces of madness seeping through the fatigue.
Then her world changes for the better when Craig generously pays for a nanny to come by each evening and help out Marlo after giving birth to her third child. The nanny’s name is Tully (played by Mackenzie Davis of “Halt and Catch Fire” fame). Tully is 26, a free spirit, yet an exceedingly grounded young woman with a serious work ethic. She instantly takes over the house, taking care of the baby effortlessly, and managing to take care of Marlo too. Not only does she give mom the precious “alone time” she desperately needs and craves, but Tully ends up becoming a sort of therapist, girlfriend, muse, and shoulder to cry on – all in one.
Tully seems too good to be true when she also organizes the home, cleans it from top to bottom, and finds a place for everything. She even makes cupcakes that Marlo can take to school as a sign of good will to help undo some of the drama of Jonah. Ultimately, Tully becomes the ‘life partner’ Marlo needs, bantering back and forth in sharp, quippy dialogue from Cody that covers a wide range of topics, everything from breastfeeding to fantasy role play.
In Tully, Marlo sees the kind of caretaker she wants to be, and their bond becomes what keeps her going. As much as Tully turns into a super nanny, the real job she does is help return Marlo to a functioning, whole person. With the aid of Tully, Marlo learns to love her life again, live and let live each day, and kick the postpartum depression to the curb.
The movie struggles some in its third act, as Marlo and Tully get everything percolating and even manage to bring Drew around and realize he needs to help out more and pay attention. The drama starts to wane until a shocking, out-of-left-field, rug-pull occurs which may leave audiences feeling a bit stymied. Still, this is a smart and involving study of American motherhood, and it’s great that the film never tries to turn the two women against each other. That Hollywood cliché may have helped launch a number of thrillers and Lifetime movies, but it has no place here. This film is far more feminist and humanist.
Cody’s writing and Reitman’s direction ensure that all the characters are vivid and the performances stellar. And in Theron, they have one of the best actresses in the world working at the top of her game. Marlo is right up there with Theron’s best work, like that of Mavis Gary in “Young Adult,” Aileen Wuornos in “Monster,” and Imperator Furiosa in “Mad Max: Fury Road.” And it sets the bar very, very high for any other actresses to follow in 2018.