Tully is the third collaboration between writer Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman (after Juno, and Young Adult), and the second to star Charlize Theron. With their trademark mix of humour and unapologetic honesty, Cody and Reitman depict the realities of motherhood and the sense of loss that comes with middle age.
In the film, Theron plays Marlo, a woman in her late 30s with two kids and another on the way. Her 8-year-old daughter, Sarah (Lia Frankland), is self-critical and shy, and her 6-year-old son, Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica), appears to be on the autism spectrum. He has yet to receive any kind of diagnosis and is referred to as “quirky” by teachers at his school. Marlo is days away from giving birth and has only just started her maternity leave. Her husband Drew (Ron Livingston) has a good job and is well-intentioned, but aside from helping Sarah with her homework he is largely absent as a parent.
Marlo’s brother Craig (Mark Duplass) has been luckier than her financially. He lives in a fancy house and has expensive cars in the driveway. Over dinner one evening, Craig tells Marlo that he wants to help her avoid the ‘difficulties’ she had after her second pregnancy (this euphemism is never explained, but we assume Marlo suffered from post-partum depression or something similar). He offers to pay for a night-nanny; a woman who would come every evening and take care of the baby, meaning Marlo would only have to wake to breastfeed. Marlo is resistant to the idea and jokes that the nanny will try to murder them, but her brother insists that she consider it.
“Cody and Reitman depict the realities of motherhood and the sense of loss that comes with middle age.”
Once the baby is born, Marlo’s life is a non-stop cycle of breastfeeding, nappy-changing, and trying to get her newborn to sleep. On top of that, Jonah’s school have informed her that it would be best for everyone if he were enrolled elsewhere. Exhausted and unable to manage more than frozen pizza and microwaved broccoli for dinner, she decides to call the nanny, whose name is Tully (Mackenzie Davis), and she arrives that night. Tully is twenty-six, energetic, and warm. Her role, as she sees it, is to take care of both child and mother. “You can’t fix the parts,” she declares, “without treating the whole”.
Despite Marlo’s initial discomfort, the positive effects of having a night-nanny are undeniable. Tully cleans, bakes, and gives Marlo a chance to talk with another adult. Within days, Marlo is noticeably happier and capable of keeping up the demands of her life; much to the approval of her family. Tully seems to be working out great, but as her friendship with Marlo intensifies we begin to suspect that something isn’t quite what it seems.
In the interest of avoiding spoilers, I won’t be too specific but there are developments towards the end of the film that may leave some audiences frustrated or let down. Often twists and reveals in films feel like a betrayal because they undermine the movie, as we understood it up until that point. Personally, I was skeptical of these developments when I first saw the film, but on second viewing found them heartbreakingly apropos. Diablo Cody’s script makes bold choices, but it never strays from Tully’s emotional core.
Ultimately I found Tully immersive and genuinely affecting. Its portrayal of motherhood felt unglamorous and honest, but at the same time compassionate and non-judgemental. In a culture where mothers are still expected to get everything done and make it look easy, it was refreshing to see Marlo shown, not as a bad mother, but as a loving person stretched beyond her capacity. This is also a film about the circumstances we find ourselves in as we age, and how the life we have at forty often differs dramatically from the life we had or aspired to have when we were younger. It doesn’t glamorize youth but it does mourn a little on behalf of the over thirty-fives who feel like their moment to be young has passed them by.
Image: Focus Features