'Tully': Not Just Another Motherhood Movie

‘Tully,’ starring Charlize Theron, offers a universal statement about middle class families

Mackenzie Davis , left, and Charlize Theron in a scene from "Tully."
Kimberly French/AP

Fifteen years ago, Charlize Theron, a former model, put on weight and made herself look ugly so as to step into the shoes of the serial killer Aileen Wuornos in the film “Monster.” The role garnered her a very justified Oscar, but also sparked a very justified debate about actors who insist on undergoing physical change in order to get into a character, and about whether that is genuinely necessary. Theron does the same in her new movie, “Tully,” and this time the reason is even more obvious. If in the past the ploy was perceived, perhaps correctly, as an attempt at disguise, this time Theron just wants to make things harder for herself.

“Tully” is the third collaboration between scriptwriter Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman, and the duo’s second with Theron. The Reitman-Cody movie “Juno” (2007) was a surprise hit, with a successful mix of sophistication, wit and sentimentality and a knowing wink of self-awareness. The filmmakers drew high praise, and Cody won the Oscar for best original screenplay (“Juno” also received nominations for best picture, direction and best actress – Ellen Page).

But when the pair joined forces again in 2011 for “Young Adult,” the initial enthusiasm for the wunderkinder seemed to have worn off. Cody’s wit and Reitman’s restraint had lost their innovative effect. The fact that Theron played the lead and that the picture addressed darker themes didn’t really help, and the film pretty much slipped by under the radar. Now, seven years later, the duo-turned-trio is back with a film that continues their joint, empathetic treatment of women in crisis.

“Tully” is about the inner world of Marlo (Charlize Theron), 41, who is the mother of two children and is pregnant with an unplanned third child. She’s not crazy about her job, and the job of her husband, Drew (Ron Livingston), is so dull that he can’t even explain what it is. Together they maintain the wearying grind of a middle-class couple in their forties.

Every family has its problems, and in this case they center on a five-year-old boy who’s considered too “special” to attend a regular school, and his older sister, who blends into the background. The third birth is already too much for Marlo; Drew tries to help when he’s home, but in the end she’s alone on the child-rearing front. Drew works during the day, and Marlo is alone with two young children and an infant, and at night Drew is exhausted and in any case he can’t breastfeed.

Marlo has no complaints – and maybe that’s her big problem. After giving birth she slides into a new, even harsher routine. A montage of her maternity leave erases any connection to the notion of “leave” and is more reminiscent of testimonies about sleep deprivation at Guantanamo.

The solution to all these troubles begins with Marlo’s wealthy brother, Craig (Mark Duplass), who offers her a taste of the good life and urges her to hire a night nanny – he will pay the cost. Vaguely mentioning postpartum depression in her past, Marlo at first rejects the idea, but she too buckles under the day-to-day load. It’s then that Tully (Mackenzie Davis, “Blade Runner 2049,” the television series “Halt and Catch Fire”) enters Marlo’s life like a whirlwind. Not of the sort that scatters leaves, more the kind that sucks them in. At first she makes it possible for Marlo to realize the fantasy of every young mother – sleep – and afterward bonuses materialize.

Tully is what everything Marlo needs her to be: a good caregiver for the baby, but also an amusing, fun-filled interlocutor, crackling with wit and with a better understanding of the weary-mother syndrome than anyone else in the world. Davis injects her character with the enthusiasm and the tenderness she represents. She’s a kind of Generation Y Mary Poppins, dressed in mini-jeans and brimming with entertaining trivia information. But it’s clear that a night nanny can’t stay on forever.

Charlize Theron in a scene from "Tully."
Kimberly French/AP

Impossible expectations

The movie tries to play up the monotonous routine of pregnancy and parenthood in ways we’ve often seen before, but thanks to Theron it’s not overly clichéd. The filmmakers attempt, with partial success, to depict madness that disguises itself as sanity. Marlo sets out to do what society expects from a middle-class woman: hold a fulltime job, maintain couplehood, raise two children – one of whom requires special care – be happy about an unplanned pregnancy and – grimmest of all – display a semblance of control over the situation. How much control? Enough so that she can also bake Minion-like cupcakes. If there’s a villain in the movie, it’s the impossible expectations held out for a woman who is not a member of the upper class.

For a middle-class family, the concept of a night nanny sounds untenable, not only because it conflicts with the American middle-class ethos, but because of the inherently complex relationship between the families involved. Drew assumes that his rich brother-in-law scorns him for his boring, low-paying job, while Marlo envies her brother’s wife, who projects svelte perfection. If until this point the economic gap manifested as a sense of inferiority and guilt feelings, revolving around car, house and other material assets, the ability to employ a nanny like Tully shows the true disparity. It’s not by chance that Tully explains to Marlo that she’s there to care not only for the baby but for her as well. That’s the meaning of money.

The class theme, which becomes the hub of the film, is perhaps the most interesting element in the joint maturation process of Reitman and Cody in their continuing examination of the tension between femininity and self-fulfillment. In “Juno” it was the viewpoint of a teenager who becomes pregnant and realizes that there are no perfect families. “Young Adult” jumped to the thirties age group to show that family life is not for everyone, that some people just aren’t cut out for it.

“Tully” deals with the family unit as it appears in advertising brochures, but once more there are complex, dark forces lurking beneath the surface. Cody, who likes to fuse gruff sincerity and humor, tones down the wit of “Juno,” but the script is still sometimes inordinately acerbic in relation to the plot. Reitman, as usual, injects nonchalance, humanity and attention to the small details. Theron, for her part, rounds out the picture with her impressive ability to link physical and mental erosion by means of small gestures. Each of the three in their own way and all three together complement one another.

The last part of the film, which I won’t describe so as not to spoil the viewing experience, requires a separate discussion. It can easily be seen as an unnecessary twist, and for many it will probably paint the whole movie in somber tones, adding resonance to what was only hinted at in “Young Adult.” Not because the ending is similar, but because the feeling suddenly arises that the Cody-Theron-Reitman trio is starting to repeat its messages, even if the filmmakers discover new problems in each decade of a woman’s life. On the other hand, what looks like a gimmick sabotages, albeit not completely, what the movie wishes to say about late pregnancy, motherhood and family. And it’s not a pleasant feeling.

“Tully” is probably not the best film that Cody, Reitman or Theron have made, but that’s no reason to pass it up. Their collaboration is starting to tread water a bit, but they’re still an abundantly talented threesome who have carved a distinctive niche for themselves. It would also be a mistake to view “Tully” as one more movie about motherhood and family, because the statement it makes applies to all of humanity, only this time the universal suffering is seen through the eyes of a woman rather than a man. Even if their success is only partial this time, we can hope that the same group will collaborate creatively again, because their shared cycle of life still has great potential.