Film Review – Tully
Toys laying all over the carpet, dishes in the sink, mouths to feed, teacher parent conferences – the life of a parent is not an easy one. In their third collaboration together, director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody touch upon the ups and downs of parenthood with care and empathy. They could have easily taken this story and dropped it into cheap cynicism. Yes, we know that once a person has a kid their life changes completely, often with hardships and challenges along the way. But Reitman and Cody inject a level of warmth that prevents this from being simply depressing, at times it’s quite funny. Being a parent is a tough job, but it’s a necessary one – where would any of us be if there weren’t someone watching after us as toddlers?
In each of their pairings together, Reitman and Cody capture a slice of life in the midst of transition. In Juno (2007), a young woman makes a difficult decision when she finds herself unexpectedly pregnant. In the fantastic Young Adult (2011), a former prom queen returns to her small town and faces the real possibility that her best days may be behind her. Tully (2018) feels like a mixture of the two, as we find Marlo (Charlize Theron, who also starred in Young Adult) having difficulty juggling the responsibilities of looking after her three children – one of which is a newborn – while her husband spends his time either working or playing video games.
The combination of Reitman’s keen directing, Cody’s dialogue, and Theron’s performance makes Marlo’s story compelling from the moment she comes on screen. She is clearly overwhelmed, stuck between what appears to be three or four hard places. But the honesty in how this develops is what really makes it work. Everything Theron has to deal with feels true to life: making sure her kids are fed and make it to school on time, dealing with the special needs of her son (Asher Miles Fallica), adjusting to her changing body as the latest addition to her family arrives, and a husband (Ron Livingston) who loves her but doesn’t see how much he is not participating. This all stacks up. Stefan Grube’s editing includes a montage in which Marlo’s daily routine repeats over and over in increasing velocity as she tries to keep up with everything whirling around her.
At the urging of her brother (Mark Duplass), Marlo hires a night nanny named Tully (Mackenzie Davis) to help watch over the newborn in the evenings. At first, Marlo brushes off having a stranger look after her baby, but as Tully proves her capabilities, Marlo’s defenses start to soften, especially since it allows her to get some much needed rest. Tully is a unique change to Marlo’s life. Here is a young, vibrant, off beat personality bursting into Marlo’s world of structured chaos. Tully represents the promise and vitality Marlo had when she was younger, when she had nothing but time on her hands and not a care in the world, before marriage and bills and all that comes after youth slips away.
In a sense, Tully is a bit of the anti “Manic Pixie Dream Girl.” In many romance stories, this would be the character (most times a female) whose quirkiness and lust for life teaches the protagonist (most times a male) what it means to “live each day to the fullest” or whatever Hallmark quote you can think of. Tully flips this idea on its head, removing the romantic angle and focusing more on understanding. Tully is never portrayed as someone who is aloof to the realities of the world, but at the same time Marlo is never treated with condescension. They go hand in hand with one another, offering something that the other may never have realized, or perhaps may have forgotten. Theron and Davis’ conversations work organically, they meet each other on a psychological plane and each holds their own. A few years ago, Theron could have very well played Davis’ role (and let’s be honest, she probably still could), but it’s that element that makes their chemistry so spot on.
This dynamic has such a persuasive feel to it that it’s a darn shame that the third act comes along and throws everything for a loop. A development happens (which I will not describe) that seems to come out of nowhere. In theory, I understand how Reitman and Cody came to this sudden switch, and there’s enough development to justify it…but I just don’t buy it. The narrative was working so well up to this point that the left turn feels cheap and unnecessary. Not only that, but after all the cards are laid out on the table, I began to question how this change worked logistically. If what we learn is to be taken literally, then much of what happens beforehand gets jumbled into incoherency when seen under this new light. I hate to be so vague regarding this, but it’s best that you see it for yourself and make your own decision whether this choice worked for you or not.
But even with a questionable third act, Tully is so effective on a human level that it is still worth a recommendation. As they have moved forward with their collaborations, Reitman and Cody have grown into thoughtful and perceptive filmmakers. They’re at their best taking small-scale stories and presenting them with big time heart.