The movies have often commented on motherhood in all its iterations. From the baseball bat wielding Wendy Torrance of “The Shining” and “Sounder’s” hardscrabble Rebecca Morgan to the boozy Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and “The Manchurian Candidate’s” controlling Eleanor Iselin moms of all kinds have blessed the screens.
“Tully,” new dramedy from Oscar nominated director Jason Reitman, presents an often-used stereotype, the stressed out mom, then takes the story to some unexpected places.
Charlize Theron is Marlo, frazzled mother of three including a newborn named Mia—“They’re such a blessing,” she says with an eye roll—and wife of Drew (Ron Livingston). Drew helps out around the house but the brunt of the childrearing is left to Marlo. To help bring some order to his sister’s chaotic home, Marlo’s rich brother (Mark Duplass) sends over a gift in the form of twenty-six-year old night nanny Tully (Mackenzie Davis), a Mary Poppins-esque saviour. “They are like ninjas,” he says. “They sneak in and out. You barely know they’re there.”
Exhausted and desperate, Marlo reluctantly agrees and instantly her life improves. Tully does the heavy lifting around the house—“ I’m like Saudi Arabia,” she says. “I have an energy surplus.”—minding the kids with a cheerful attitude that borders on Stepford Wifesque. “She’ll grow a little overnight,” she says of the newborn. “And so will we!” At first Tully’s platitudes annoy—”You’re like a book of fun facts for unpopular fourth graders,” Marlo complains.—but soon their relationship deepens as the younger woman takes on the role of an unconventional caregiver. “I’m going to help you with everything not just Mia,” Tully says. “You can’t treat the parts without treating the whole.”
Some of screenwriter Diablo Cody’s trademarked wit and wordplay are in evidence but the movie is more concerned with the characters interplay to worry about imbuing every line with a zinger. Instead it’s a gently humorous movie about the power of kindness, of positivity, of bonding and, conversely the importance of self-reliance. Unfortunately the climax undoes much of the goodwill generated by the first two acts. Enough said. No spoilers here!
With that in mind, it must be said that Theron has rarely been better. As a woman on the verge of a breakdown she is equal parts frailty and emotional honesty. If the bags under her eyes and the world-weary look on her face don’t convince you of the weight she feels then a montage featuring the late night crying that interrupts sleep, breast pumping, unruly siblings and the other ‘joys” of motherhood, will. She’s at the brink and Theron’s performance is uncomfortably realistic.
Mackenzie Davis as the “stranger who comes in to look after Mia” is pure empathy, a ball of energy that acts in stark contrast to Theron’s dog-tired Marlo. Forthright but calming she is exactly the tonic Marlo needs. “I feel like I can see colour again,” says a rested Marlo after Tully’s first shift. A hipster with a serene smile, buzzwords drip from her mouth—the baby wasn’t born, for instance, she came “earthside”—like a lullaby.
Delicately directed by Reitman “Tully” doesn’t shy away from the difficulties of parenthood. It’s an unvarnished look at sore nipples and sleepless nights that entertainingly essays Marlo’s psychological state. It’s just too bad it tries to get clever in its fading moments.