Tully is a movie about motherhood and exhaustion. Charlize Theron embodies both with utter conviction in the role of Marlo, a human-resources manager with two young kids and another on the way. When her order of a decaf latte gets a side-eye from a bystander ("There are trace amounts of caffeine in that, you know"), the very pregnant Marlo doesn't have a snappy comeback, or need one. The befogged glare says it all.
Screenwriter Diablo Cody is still best known for the hyper-verbal Juno. Yet here, in her third collaboration with director Jason Reitman (Young Adult was the second), she manages to get her best points across without words. Make no mistake: Tully is not a witty, wacky comedy about how tough it is to be a mom (though that is its subject). It's a tender, dark, intermittently funny film about the choices people make and the prices they pay.
From the first scene, in which Marlo painstakingly strokes her son's skin with a brush (a treatment for his anxiety), Tully never lets us doubt Marlo's love for her kids. She's a good parent, but she's overwhelmed, as Reitman shows us in a rapid postnatal montage of waking, stumbling downstairs, nursing, breast-pumping ... The routine is grueling to watch, let alone experience, and Marlo's husband, Drew (Ron Livingston), while sweet enough, rarely seems present.
At the end of her rope, Marlo finally accepts an offer to fund a "night nanny" from her richer brother (Mark Duplass). Twentysomething Tully (Mackenzie Davis) quickly settles in and becomes not just a mother's helper but a friend, confidant and source of pithy observations that remind Marlo why she took on this burden in the first place.
The film plays with our expectations for characters like Tully: Is she a beneficent fairy come to save the family, a dangerous interloper or something else entirely? Marlo herself mentions that there's a subgenre of "psycho nanny" movies in which working moms are, essentially, punished for their inability to do it all.
Relentlessly energetic and upbeat, Tully is almost creepily perfect. But she has her limitations, and Marlo isn't afraid to call her out for her youthful pontifications on things she hasn't experienced. As their relationship becomes more necessary to Marlo, it also becomes more difficult to pin down.
Even after things are pinned down and labeled, sort of, Tully still leaves us with more questions than answers. It gently suggests that Dad could be sharing more of Mom's burden, but doesn't clarify why, when or how much he checked out. For the bulk of the film's running time, Drew's lesser involvement in his kids' lives is treated as a foregone conclusion; when Marlo serves frozen pizza for dinner, she feels like the failure. When she thinks of her husband, it's to worry that she's not satisfying him sexually.
In demanding so much of herself and so little of Drew, is Marlo her own worst enemy? The film sticks so close to her perspective that it's hard to be sure, and a longer epilogue might have helped unpack these issues.
As it is, Tully will start hard conversations about motherhood, fatherhood and even that evergreen topic of what it means to grow up. It's not always an easy film to watch, because it refuses to sugarcoat a subject that movies have been sugarcoating (or avoiding) for a century: Bearing and raising kids is hard goddamn work. Props to the moms out there.