Movie Review: Tully
By Matthew Huntley
May 21, 2018
The beauty of Jason Reitman's “Tully” is that it's not any one type of movie. It flows, fluidly and mysteriously, between comedy, drama, romance, coming-of-age, and even fantasy. It alerts us to the fact we're so used to a movie's structure and behavior being so rigidly defined that we often forget movies are most fun and engaging when the lines around their genre are blurred and their meaning is open to interpretation.
And yet, “Tully” isn't smug or self-righteous about being peculiar. It's surprisingly modest and understated. Diablo Cody's screenplay is graceful and subtle but also bold for the way it deliberately leaves out answers to our burning questions. Both Cody and Reitman have put a lot of faith in the audience to talk about “Tully” after seeing it, and trust me, you will. If the movie is any “type,” it's the type that stays with you.
If you've seen the preview, then you know “Tully” is being sold as a comedy-drama about a pregnant woman who's stressed out, exhausted and barely on the right side of sanity. Her name is Marlo (Charlize Theron), and in addition to being just days away from giving birth to her third child, she must also be a devoted mother to her 8-year-old daughter, Sarah (Lia Frankland), who's showing signs of low self-esteem; and her 5-year-old son, Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica), who, to put it nicely, is a bit of a handful. He's always kicking the back of Marlo's seat; he screams at the top of his lungs whenever Marlo has to park in a different parking lot or hears a toilet flush; and he requires skin brushing just before bed in order to calm down (Marlo read this technique worked for horses and she'll try just about anything to mitigate her son's anxiety, of which doctors don't know the cause).
Even though it seems like Marlo has to do it all herself, she does get support from her often-traveling-for-work husband, Drew (Ron Livingston), who's just as dedicated a parent. But her slightly condescending brother Craig (Mark Duplass) and his wife Elyse (Elaine Tan) think Marlo and Drew are going to need some extra help once the new baby arrives. They'd hate to see a repeat of “what happened last time,” which we assume was Marlo experiencing a severe postpartum depression.
So Craig hires them a “night nanny,” whose job is just like it sounds—to tend to the baby during the night so Marlo can sleep. She would still nurse, and therefore establish and maintain that mother-newborn bond, but she'd be able to rest while the nanny performed all the tedious tasks such as diaper changes, food preparation, rocking the baby, etc.
At first, Marlo doesn't like the idea of having a complete stranger care for her baby, but after trudging through each day like a zombie, getting virtually no sleep, and Jonah's school principal (Gameela Wright) telling her they're kicking Jonah out because he has too many special needs, she caves. She calls the nanny service and a couple nights later opens the door to the angelic Tully (Mackenzie Davis), who's young, thin, glowing, and softly tells Marlo, “I'm here to take care of you.”
And boy, does she ever. Right from the start, Tully begins to wave her magic wand, putting Marlo completely at ease, even when she breast feeds in the middle of the night. Weeks go by and a would-be uncomfortable arrangement ends up feeling completely natural as Marlo begins to gain energy, laugh, cook, and simply feel alive. She tells Drew she can't remember the last time she slept this well and feels she “can see colors again.” On top of caring for the baby, Tully also cleans the house, makes cupcakes for Jonah's class, and becomes Marlo's close friend and confidant as they watch reality TV shows together, drink sangria, and even arrange a sexual act for Drew, who has yet to meet the night nanny. Tully proves she's nothing short of a dream come true.
So, then, what's the catch? Where does the story go after Tully brings calmness and tranquility into Marlo's life? You might suppose Marlo and Tully's friendship turns sour or spiteful because Tully is younger, more in shape and seems to have it all together, while Marlo still struggles to get fit and feel desirable; or perhaps that Drew has an affair with Tully and makes Marlo jealous and vengeful, creating a vicious love triangle; or that the movie turns into a thriller along the lines of “The Hand that Rocks the Cradle” or, as Marlo says, “...a Lifetime movie, where the nanny tries to kill the family and the mom has to walk with a cane at the end.”
But the best thing about “Tully,” and what makes it such a unique pleasure, is that we never know where it's going. It's lovely and enigmatic that way, just like real life, and we simply marvel in watching these characters talk, learn and grow as human beings—human beings who must face and embrace both the harsh and wonderful realities in which they find themselves. Perhaps the reason we respond to it in such a deep and meaningful way is because we feel we either know these people or are these people, have either lived or are living their lives.
“Tully” evokes such strong truth that it seems only those who've gone through similar situations could have brought this story to life, and Reitman and Cody likely stemmed the film from deeply personal experiences, while Theron, Davis and Livingston, who never go for an effect, understand their characters in their hearts. They present them as these people might actually be, which is to say they're thoughtful and caring but also human and flawed.
Where “Tully” ends up, I'd rather not even let on since it's meant to be a surprise. Just know that its final destination is not only believable but in a way perfect for a film that seeks to examine life from a practical, touching and humorous point of view. It does have an agenda and a message about what we must do in order to take better care of ourselves and our families, but it's careful not to overstate it or get pushy. It simply reiterates an approach to life that seems so obvious and simple yet one we're so prone to forget.
This is the third film in just over a decade to be directed by Reitman and written by Cody, following “Juno” in 2007 and “Young Adult” in 2011, the latter of which also starred Theron. And each of these comedy-dramas has gotten progressively better. Reitman and Cody must grow wiser and more mindful with age because their heightened sense of the human condition gets reflected in their work. I can only imagine how deep, touching and engaging their next collaborative project will be.
For now, though, “Tully” is truly something special, and one of its best, most enduring qualities is that there isn't any one reason it leaves such a strong impression. It's partly because it's so human, relatable and genuine. Another reason is because it's so funny, painful and dramatic. The there's the thrilling, unexpected ending. The great thing about it is it leaves us with lots to think about, and as we ponder the film, we simultaneously look inside ourselves and examine who we are and what we're doing. The film both reminds us and causes us to slow down, breathe, and, hopefully, remember what's really important.