Marlo (Charlize Theron), pregnant with her and husband Drew’s (Ron Livingston) third child, just about manages to keep on top of lifts, shopping and cooking as well as caring for her shy pre-teen daughter and misbehaving son. After her baby is born, Marlo follows the advice of her brother Craig (Mark Duplass) and hires a night nanny named Tully (Mackenzie Davis), whose job it is to look after the newborn so she can sleep through the night. The bond between the two women grows ever closer and for the first time in a long time, Marlo starts to feel like her old self again.
As a nation, we’re well-used to the stereotype of the Irish mammy. Generally speaking though, the mother as a comical, level-headed supporting character is not unique to us. Sometimes she’s the self-sacrificing figure who will do anything for her children, sometimes she’s neurotic and controlling, suppressing the growth and social development of her kids, who are typically the leads. Rarely has she ever taken front-of-stage.
Tully courageously and unblinkingly shows why that is – motherhood is far from glamourous. While the opening scene of Tully shows Marlo gently stroke the skin of her son with a soft brush in the morning sun, in an idyllic scene between mother and child, it is quickly established that such moments in parenthood are fleeting. Typically, it’s chaos, and in a brilliant, calamitous montage following the birth of Marlo’s second daughter, we see the difficulties and relentlessness the head of the household faces on a daily basis between making the meals, bringing the kids to school, seats being kicked, baby cries, tantrums, comforting, nappy changing, etc. Tully refuses to shy away even from the physical pain of motherhood, particularly in relation to breast-feeding.
Key to the heart of this film is of course the performance of Charlize Theron, who has for years proven herself a magnificent actress with devastating performances in the likes of Monster, North County and Young Adult. As Marlo (which sees her, as with Monster, go method, gaining 50 pounds for the part), she is nothing short of spectacular, a woman who permanently, and understandably, exhausted, has mastered the art of putting on a brave face, and whose sense of humour just about manages to make brief appearances. Livingston and Duplass make excellent additions but the movie belongs to Theron and Davis, the latter of whom had a riveting supporting role in Blade Runner 2049, and will no doubt become a household name after being cast in the upcoming Terminator movie opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton.
The writer-director team, Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman, respectively, are the same duo that brought you Juno and Young Adult. Arguably, Tully is a sort of emotional pinnacle if you were to consider the films as a trilogy – it imagines what path Juno and Paulie Bleeker, or Mavis (the protagonist of Young Adult, also played by Theron) and Buddy could have ended up on had they gone the route of parenthood. As with its predecessors, Tully shines with a sense of humour, even through its sombre circumstances, and sharp one-liners. Tully, also like Juno and Young Adult, excels from having a lead you can’t help but love and eccentric supports, most especially in our young, eccentric, often quite weird nurse nanny, you’d want in your own life.
Oftentimes with films like this that are driven around a fairly simple concept – let’s not forget Ladybird, a comparable film as it is similarly perfect in its small wholeness and power to emote – you wonder how can they possibly give Tully a fitting finale and somehow, it has just that. It’s a movie that reminds us not just of the emotional and physical magnitude of what moms do, but also that there’s never not a point where you can totally revitalise your life, in whatever way you see fit.