One of the strangest things we do as a culture is the way we overtly lie about parenthood when we talk about it.
Being a parent is almost unbearably difficult. No matter how much someone tries to explain the reality of it to you, it’s harder than that. Our popular culture sends bizarre messages about what “good” parenting looks like, and the models that exist for good parenting are endlessly debatable for anyone who has actually been through it. Part of the problem is that I feel like most media softpedals the real emotional demands of the first few months of having a baby in the house. Nothing I read and nothing I watched really prepared me for how tired I would be, how tired my wife would be, or how constant the demands on our attention would be. There are memories I have from the early days of both of my kids where it’s basically one big blurry hallucination, and I’m sure any parent can share similar memories with you.
Because no one is honest about how hard things are, it feels like you’re a failure if you have to ask for help, and Marlo (Charlize Theron) is determined to keep doing everything for herself. Her brother Craig (Mark Duplass) sees how hard she’s working, and he tries to offer her a way to help in the form of a night nanny. Craig’s got more money than Marlo and her husband Drew (Ron Livingston), and that’s part of why Marlo isn’t comfortable taking the gift from him. Another part of it is because she can’t imagine having anyone else take care of her child, especially during those early bonding days. It’s not easy for her, though, because while she and Drew love each other and have a decent marriage, they’ve settled into a routine, and a lot of his routine is about himself. Marlo’s the one who is grappling with Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica) and Sarah (Lia Frankland), her first two children, and she’s the one who is going to have to give up even more of her sleep to nurse and change the new baby, Mia.
When the baby’s born, Marlo finds herself stretched to her breaking point, and she reluctantly takes her brother up on his offer. Tully (Mackenzie Davis) is the nanny who shows up, and at first, Marlo isn’t sure what to think. The relationship between the two of them is what drives the rest of the movie, and early on, Tully explains that she’s really there to take care of Marlo as much as the baby. That’s clearly true as we see the difference she begins to make on Marlo’s overall attitude. She starts to sleep again. She has time to enjoy things like cooking instead of just heating microwave pizza. She even starts trying to figure out a way to reconnect with Drew in bed.
There’s a moment early on where Marlo’s joking about how she is uncomfortable with getting a nanny because it sounds like a bad TV movie where the nanny tries to kill her and take her family and the wife walks with a cane by the end of the film. Cody’s telling you that there’s more going on here than it seems at first, but I worry people are going to oversell the film’s final act reveals. Just know that the film is giving you new information all the way through, and that it’s carefully built. Whatever left turns or big choices are made, it’s in service of the film’s main theme, which is the danger of giving yourself up in service of other people. My wife dealt with some fairly crippling post-partum effects after our second child, and it was clear that we couldn’t do it again. There is a toll that childbirth takes on women that is catastrophic, and not enough is made of how important it is to offer real support as a partner. You have to be truly present, and you have to be willing to take on more of the burden than you’re comfortable with, because the alternative is letting your partner do it for you. There is profound wisdom embedded in Tully, and Cody’s way of getting to that truth is clever without feeling like a cheat.
I hope Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody and Charlize Theron keep making films together forever. Young Adult was my favorite Reitman film before this, and I think Tully is right on par with it. Theron is terrific in the film, and as a physically transformative performance, this is right up there with Monster. She knows how to sell Cody’s dialogue perfectly. She’s witty and sharp-tongued, but it doesn’t feel glib. It’s just the way she processes things. There is an emotional weight to the work Theron does here that I found quite moving, but she’s not looking for cheap sympathy. There’s no vanity to her work here, and honestly, it makes me love her even more as a performer. She reminds me of De Niro in his late ‘70s/early ‘80s prime when he would completely change his body from role to role, and the choices he made helped build his characters from the outside in. I can’t believe this is Furiosa or that she’s the same person who laid such emotional waste to her hometown in Young Adult. Theron vanishes into Marlo, and I find this character to be completely recognizable, totally empathetic.
Tully is a tricky role, and Mackenzie Davis gives it everything she’s got. If you’re not familiar with her yet, “everything she’s got” is a considerable amount, indeed. She strikes me as an incredibly hungry actor, and if you’ve watched her work on Halt and Catch Fire or in Blade Runner 2049 or on that incredible episode of Black Mirror, then you have some idea of what she can do with the right material. Whatever archetype you think Tully’s going to fall into, she deftly avoids thanks to Cody’s sharp script and the choices Davis makes. The way things unfold between them is not just a look at how hard parenting is at a certain point, but also a wry commentary on how women are valued in their 20s, their 30s, and beyond, and there is some great back-and-forth between them that is both honest and emotional and self-aware. Davis and Theron have tremendous chemistry, and even once the film starts making some surprising, unexpected choices, they ground it in that respect that gradually develops.
Reitman’s become a punching bag for some critics, and unfairly. He’s had an uneven career, but it’s clear that the material he makes is material that speaks to him in a personal way. You don’t make films like Up In The Air or Juno or this because you’re trying to book the next Star Wars. These are very human movies, and I love that he seems to be willing to let his leads be terribly flawed without judging them. His movies aren’t morality plays; they are character studies, and they’re far more concerned with the inner lives of their leads than they are with plot mechanics. Tully is a very simple movie in many ways, but it is controlled and mature and emotionally complex. Eric Steelberg’s photography is intimate and soft, making it feel like we are somewhat submerged in Marlo’s life, just like she is. There’s a “You Only Live Twice” cover deployed to perfect effect, and some other canny deep-cut soundtrack choices, but the film isn’t particularly trying to dazzle you. Everything’s in service of the final fifteen or twenty minutes, when we learn just how much Marlo’s really struggling, and my reaction was to just hurt for her.
There are no villains in this film, no giant conflict. It is simply about accepting who we have become even if we’re not sure we remember the road map we used to get there, and it is a quiet triumph for this creative team. Focus has a tricky film on their hands, but a rewarding one, and I hope it works for audiences when they finally get a look at it.
Running time: 94 minutes
Drew McWeeny | Chief Film Critic