After a string of recent critical and commercial disappointments (Labour Day, Men Women and Children), director Jason Reitman has reunited with screenwriter Diablo Cody (Juno, Young Adult) and Charlize Theron (Young Adult) for the new comedy, Tully.
Marlowe (Charlize Theron) is an overwhelmed mom about to give birth to her third child. At the urging of her wealthy brother (Mark Duplass), she hires a night nurse named Tully (Mackenzie Davis) to help her take on the load, and the two women have a strong connection.
While that sounds fairly straightforward, there is a lot more going on in the film.
First off, Tully really fits in alongside Juno and Young Adult as sort of a trilogy of films about adulthood. In Juno, the titular character grows up too fast, in Young Adult, the main character puts off growing up for as long as she can, and in Tully, Marlowe is finally letting go of her youth and accepting adulthood. Eventually.
In the beginning of the film, she is overworked, stressed and resentful of her life. Charlize Theron is a rare actor that can sell that character as both deeply unlikable, and completely hilarious. When another character congratulates her on the third baby, she rubs her massive pregnant belly and says “it’s a blessing!” in a way that lets you know it is anything but. Her comic timing is unique and brings a lot of joy to the film.
Despite being named for Tully, the film is 100% about Marlowe’s journey. She’s not a new mom struggling with parenthood, she’s a third-time mom who didn’t expect to be here. She works a boring job in HR, her husband is average and her kids are a handful — Sarah, the eldest, is at an awkward age, and Jonah is having trouble at school and may be suffering from a mental disorder. It’s not the life anyone would imagine for themselves, but it’s certainly a life many end up with.
Tully the night nurse is, essentially, a manic pixie dream girl. She’s young and strikingly beautiful, spouts off random trivia and has a magic touch. She calms new baby Mia instantly, she cooks and cleans, and she lifts Marlowe out of her funk and towards a newfound sense of self. She helps Marlowe realise her boring life is a gift, and she can be fulfilled by her family. Tully seeming like one-dimensional character makes sense by the end of the film, but the character still gives Mackenzie Davis very little to work with other than “charming,” which she completely nails.
While the movie focuses on Marlowe’s relationship to motherhood, the portrayal of fatherhood is also pretty fascinating. Marlowe’s husband (Ron Livingston) is essential a non-factor for much of the film, being physically absent (travels for work almost immediately after baby Mia is born) as well as emotionally distant, often playing video games while Marlowe deals with the household. He’s not quite a deadbeat dad, he loves his kids and does spend time with them, but is happy to let a lot of the work fall on the shoulders of his wife. Tully doesn’t quite make him out to be a villain and he might represent a lot of real dads out there who only “babysit” their kids from time to time, but it’s clear he’s another stress factor on Marlowe’s life. If she had a more active partner, maybe baby number three wouldn’t wouldn’t have caused her as much distress.
While the movie never really diagnoses her, it’s not a stretch to say that Marlowe suffers from postpartum depression. Similarly, the movie never says what, if anything, is wrong with Jonah — is he on the autism spectrum, or just going through a difficult phase? It’s an interesting approach that I appreciated, as the film isn’t about “mental illness” or “people with mental illness,” but that their mental illness is just one aspect of their crazy lives. It’s realistic, and helps keep the film in comedy territory and not a Lifetime movie of the week.
I think Tully will probably play differently for audiences depending on what stage of life they are in: younger, childless viewers might see the film as a horror story, while parents might find it relatable or even uplifting. How you react to the message of “sometimes having a boring middle-aged life is okay” might say more about you than the film — personally, I’m more of a Young Adult than a Tully, but the film has enough laughs and heart to make it worth your time.