Film Review: Tully

Following the bond that develops between an overworked parent and her nighttime nanny, 'Tully' is both bitingly funny and observant—and a quietly radical statement on motherhood, sure to make mothers everywhere feel less alone.
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A very pregnant belly is the first image we catch sight of in Jason Reitman’s new comedy Tully, a smart, deeply empathetic ode to motherhood that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on Thursday. The setting is a chaotic suburban home bracing for yet another exhausting day, as Reitman’s lens—powered by a Diablo Cody screenplay for the third time (after the sweet Juno and the knockout Young Adult)—lifts the curtain on a type of domestic fatigue all too familiar in American family comedies: tantrum-throwing, seat-kicking children, messy houses, careless husbands, and so on.

Yet, once its layers get peeled away, Cody’s refreshing take on modern-day maternity (in a film that carries her stamp more than Reitman’s) is neither blandly conventional (far from it) nor a Juno for adults, though Tully is infused with Juno’s infectious wit. Instead, its mature beats are closer to the sharply observed characterizations of Young Adult, in which Charlize Theron played a gorgeous ex-prom queen who resents her high school sweetheart’s happy marriage and is in self-denial about her own misery. Tully also stars Theron (superbly committed as an angry burnout) in the role of Marlo, a mother of three (two challenging young ones, plus a screaming newborn) living in desolation alongside a videogame-obsessed, barely-there husband (Ron Livingston) and showing considerable postpartum weight, realistically and respectfully portrayed onscreen for a change. (Yes, women don’t miraculously go back to their former figures right after childbirth.)

This very welcome creative reunion of the Young Adult trio is a winning combination right from the start, especially when the story morphs into something out of a fairytale once Marlo’s happily married, well-off brother (Mark Duplass) decides to give her the gift of a nighttime nanny. The idea is to bring a caretaker into Marlo’s house after a certain hour, so that she can sleep and only briefly wake up for breastfeeding. Though initially reluctant, she agrees after she hits a wall one day. (Having watched a nicely stitched montage of Marlo’s hectic days and sleepless nights, we find ourselves on her brother’s side almost immediately.)

Enter Tully (a smiling, overeager Mackenzie Davis, perfectly cast), the competent and knowledgeable (on any topic) nighttime helper. You could perceive her as a contemporary Mary Poppins, who can fix things with the snap of her fingers. Or perhaps liken her to Pulp Fiction’s Mr. Wolf, in charge of cleaning up daily domestic crime scenes created by raucous kids. Or she might have parallels to Rumpelstiltskin, tasked to help Marlo spin straw into gold every night. Tully is really none of those things, but she grows into a happy amalgam of them all. She proves her worth immediately by being genuinely sweet, comforting and helpful the minute she takes charge of the nightly rituals. At first intimidated by Tully’s enviable looks (“You had no children,” she gushes, peering at Tully’s firm midriff), Marlo warms up to her in due course once she starts tasting the sweetness of sleep and waking up to a clean, orderly house and baked treats.

With fluid, wise dialogue and tender female-bonding scenes as comfortable to slip into as cozy loungewear, Cody gradually builds a heartwarming relationship between Marlo and Tully, making memorable screen heroes out of everyday women. This often laugh-out-loud-funny film generously puts itself in service of all mothers shamed by society for seeking help or wanting to preserve a bit of their former selves. “You don’t have to do it all by yourself,” the film reminds. Tully’s surprising finale may be gentler than Marlo has earned throughout the film, but its simple, common-sense message remains quietly radical. This collaboration between Reitman and Cody is bound to make mothers everywhere feel a little less alone.

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