By: Steve Pulaski
One of the beauties of parenting is there is no right way to do it, but on the same note, that’s one of the most difficult aspects as well. Much of it is based off of intuition and empathy, along with preparing for the unexpected while still navigating the mundane occurrences no amount of personal pep-talks can make any easier (fussy feeding-times, diaper changes, and the inconsolable wailing). Having said all that, it’s been a hot minute since American cinemas have seen a great film that champions motherhood by depicting the painful realities instead of the picturesque qualities we wish more frequently came with it.
As a single male, I’m in no business to say whether or not Tully gets motherhood right, but I’ll take the nearly unanimous praise from female critics and audience members as a sign that it’s on the right track. I’ll put it another way: it’s a film I can believe depicts motherhood with the kind of poignant realizations and meticulous detail that makes the broad conceit an ostensibly insurmountable ordeal for so many women. To that point, one of the reasons it’s so good is it knows there’s no way to show the strength of motherhood without showing the strength of womanhood as well. It respectfully iterates the main character’s circumstances not as petty problems but as authentic, escalating scenarios that would drive any person insane, much more those without the persistence so many women have.
A comedy-drama with large doses of magical realism, Tully revolves around Marlo, a New Jersey mother of two now pregnant with her third. Her husband, Drew (Ron Livingston), works a demanding job, while she has her hands full with her younger son Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica) and daughter Sarah (Lia Frankland). Of the two, Jonah commands most of mom’s attention; labeled “quirky” by his school principal, he demonstrates behavior that suggests he could be on the autism spectrum. She mentions she has a job in human resources, but we never see her at work. One evening before dinner, Marlo’s brother Craig (Mark Duplass) tells his sister about a “night nanny,” someone hired to come into your home and stay up all night with your newborn so that mom can enjoy an uninterrupted sleep — unless the baby needs to be breastfed. Marlo fears this will distance her from her child, but after a well-edited montage by Stefan Grube that shows her attending to the countless needs of her newborn baby girl, Marlo makes the call.
The next night, in walks Tully (Mackenzie Davis, Blade Runner 2049), the hired help who will attend to the infant every evening. Not only a nanny, Tully proves overtime she’s quite efficient when it comes to cooking, cleaning, and soliciting advice to Marlo that allow her to harken back to her younger days. She’s the perfect pixie dream nanny that drops in at the right time for her’s and her family’s sake.
The film is the third collaboration between the dream-team of director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody, who shocked audiences with the whimsical honesty of Juno and the heartfelt realizations shown en masse in Young Adult. Charlize Theron, who gained substantial weight before shooting, again disguises herself in a role that demands all her mental and physical energy. Watching Marlo succumb to the endless routines of nursing and caring for her newborn baby with such natural prowess made me think about how Theron has essentially made a career out of disguising herself in appearance in order to let her real acting talents show. Being unrecognizable is her thing: see Monster, Mad Max: Fury Road, Snow White and the Huntsman, and Atomic Blonde and find any physical similarities she bears. Unlike an actor like Johnny Depp, who plays dressup to the extent where his theatrics ultimately don’t effectively transform the fact that we as audience members are watching Depp parade around in new attire, Theron makes her transformation believable by adding gravitas to her performances. The great thing about Tully is she is her own talented self.
Adding on, the strength of Mackenzie Davis is evident from her abrupt entrance, but what stands out the most is her chemistry with Theron. The ladies find charisma even when Davis’s Tully walks in on Theron’s Marlo watching Gigolos with her newborn on her chest. Soon, they become comfortable enough in the presence of one another that they can sip sangria in an empty hot-tub. Then to the point when Marlo can dish out details of her sex-life without feeling an awkward strain on their friendship. The two characters bring out the best in one another, and the same can be said about both actresses.
Tully is like a Lifetime movie is a Lifetime movie had any shred of realism or also doubled as a PSA for vasectomies and tubal litigation. It will take a black comedy with humor as grim as a storm-cloud to match some of the disquieting humor so ubiquitous in Tully. Referring back to Grube’s masterfully edited montages, events so integral to motherhood prompt both bad and unsettled laughs throughout the film. Grube’s assembly of truncated sequences forms a rhythmic consistency like a visual ode to everything going wrong in Marlo’s day-to-day routine. These instances click in such a way that gives Reitman’s film broader relevance, further stomping on the myth of the “perfect mom” and that women have time for PTA meetings, home-cooked meals, bedtime stories, and self-care all in the same day. It could be worse, however. Jupiter’s days are even shorter in length, so claims Tully at one point in the film.
Released in time for Mother’s Day with hopes its theatrical presence doesn’t get swallowed by the likes of Avengers: Infinity War, Tully seems like it’s not the type of wholesome, uplifting “holiday” fare if you were to treat your mom to a day at the movies. However, its ability to resonate is much stronger than many other films out at the moment. More significantly, it commends the strength of the women in all of our lives without the kind of faux sentimentality for which some might be bracing themselves. Diablo Cody acknowledges that you can praise mothers without praising women too, and that’s a big reason for the success of the film.
After all, for all the men out there: when you were a young boy, and you felt scared, threatened, or were hurt, who did you cry for? Some of us still call on the same soul.