Director: Jason Reitman
Writer: Diablo Cody
Starring: Charlize Theron, Mackenzie Davis, Mark Duplass
Marlo (Theron) is a mother of three, including a newborn, struggling with all the strains of motherhood while her husband (Ron Livingston) is often away working. She is gifted a night nanny named Tully (Davis) by her brother (Duplass), and though Marlo is hesitant at first, she forms a special bond with her new friend who helps her to evaluate her life.
Though that plot may sound like yet another whimsical, cliché-ridden and mawkish light-hearted cheese-fest, thankfully it is the third collaboration between a writer and director who always seem to bring the best out in each other and is very much in the tone of Reitman and Cody’s previous two collaborations Juno and Young Adult, the latter in particular. Tully is a brutally honest and sometimes unashamedly bleak examination of the trials and tribulations of motherhood with a smattering of dry, observational humour and because of this is not only a deeply engaging and often profoundly moving film, but also a breath of fresh air.
Keepings things together is a stunning performance from Charlize Theron; her raw and delicate performance often captured in her exhausted looking stare is essential for the character driven narrative to work and how it delves deep into examining her fragile state of mind as she struggles to deal with the challenges of looking after her three children. She has the sleepless nights because of her new born, and the middle child (Jonah) is a particularly challenging child with behavioural issues, and this is all a contradiction to the seemingly perfect family life that her wealthy brother lives with his wife and three children. This allows for Cody to put her trademark dry observational humour into her script, but also does raise some pertinent questions.
It is thanks to her brother’s wealth that Marly is able to hire Tully, but is a perfectly forgivable plot device, and as Tully Mackenzie Davis is excellent, making sure that her naivety and enthusiasm is infectious without ever verging on irritating or overdone to the point of feeling like a forced contradiction to Marly’s character. Meanwhile, as Marly’s husband Drew, Ron Livingston does not get to appear in many scenes (and it becomes apparent why later on in the narrative), and it would have been easy for the narrative to turn him into a walking cliché to enhance our sympathy with Marly, but Cody and Reitman mostly avoid such an obvious and lazy narrative device, and in the few scenes that does have he is portrayed in a suitably sympathetic light and also delivers a heartfelt performance.
As the narrative develops and we learn more about Marly’s character it becomes clear that Tully is about more than just the everyday challenges of motherhood; the film of course has the usual moments that any mother will have experienced (or indeed any child is likely to have observed their mother experience), but it is also a far more personal examination of its protagonist and her own unique reaction to her situation. Diablo Cody’s script is reportedly based on her own personal experiences of postpartum depression, and this film has certainly caused controversy in how it depicts this. I will leave that debate to those that know far more about the subject than myself, but if the film raises the issue then that can only be a good thing.
Tully is by no means bleak for the sake of it, and there is plenty of low key humour to be had, as with real life there is often comedy in the absurdity of those general day to day occurrences. Admittedly the plot does have a fair few contrivances, especially an occasional lack of consequence for some of the character’s actions which drive the plot, while some comic lines do feel a little bit too forced and overwritten. However, despite having some narrative flaws, Tully is definitely a film that cares about its protagonist, and thanks to this and Theron’s performance it is an inclusive film that allows those with similar experiences and those without to equally engage and sympathise with Marly. The film’s ending may surprise some, but when thought about within the context of the personality and experiences of its protagonist, provides a very emotionally satisfying film.
A welcome return to form for both Reitman and Cody; Though Tully has the occasional narrative contrivance and flaw, it is overall a delicately observed, darkly comic and emotionally engaging character study and deserves to be applauded for its unique, raw approach.