Marlo (Charlize Theron) has just had her third child, a healthy girl she and her husband Drew (Ron Livingston) name Mia, and she’s overwhelmed. Her oldest child Sarah (Lia Frankland) is eight and doing well in school. Her son Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica) is five and has developmental and emotional issues making him difficult to handle when his routine is disrupted. The addition of a newborn pushes Marlo to the edge. Her brother Craig (Mark Duplass) tells Marlo he has arranged for a night nanny as a baby present to come over and give her a break. Initially reluctant to have a stranger in her house and interacting with her child, Marlo changes her mind after a particularly frustrating day. That night there’s a knock on the door and Marlo opens it to find Tully (Mackenzie Davis). Tully is in her 20’s and she is something of a free spirit juggling multiple relationships and viewing life as an open and positive adventure. She is excellent with Mia and Marlo is finally able to catch up on her sleep. Tully even cleans the house and bakes cupcakes for the kids to take to school. She is perfect in every way and is able to give Marlo a break to catch her breath.
Motherhood throughout history has never been easy unless you had the money to hire a nanny to do most of the day to day work of raising a child. “Tully” takes a slightly skewed look at modern child-rearing with a family that is familiar and a mom that is heartbreakingly relatable.
Charlize Theron is amazing in “Tully.” Her fatigue and frustration as the film starts is palpable. I grew tired just watching as Marlo repeats the routine of breast feeding, changing, rocking, pumping and all the other mundane but required aspects of taking care of a newborn. You can hear the voice in her head as she thinks to herself, “If I could just get one good night’s sleep everything would be fine.” That sleep never comes and even if it did we know the routine would just begin again the next day. Theron embodies Marlo fully. It is a little scary how Theron disappears into a role so completely. Much like with her Oscar-winning turn as serial killer Aileen Wuornos, Theron packed on weight to play the three-time mother. The fullness of her face and body adds to the feeling of fatigue and exhaustion. There’s also pain in her performance. It isn’t physical pain but emotional. Marlo feels trapped in her life and wants to break free. While she would never abandon her family it is clear Marlo believes there is something more she should be accomplishing with her life. It is a performance that should get Theron talk of another Oscar nomination if it doesn’t get lost in the shuffle of late season films.
Also giving an Oscar-worthy performance in a supporting role is Mackenzie Davis as Tully. It is a masterful high-wire act that Davis successfully pulls off. Tully could have quickly become an annoying lightweight character; but the brilliant writing of Diablo Cody and the skillful performance of Davis makes Tully like a warm blanket that we want to snuggle into. Tully initially comes off as a space cadet filled with idealism that we know will either be beaten out of her by life or she will run off with a guy named Space Child or Unicorn and live on a commune where they only bathe once a week and everyone sleeps in a stinky pile. Quickly, Davis reins in the crunchier aspects of Tully and she becomes a voice of calm and wisdom that Marlo and the audience start to believe in. We all see Tully as a beacon of hope for Marlo: Her lost idealism and youth. Tully embodies the energy and joy Marlo once had and longs for again. Mackenzie Davis is a breath of fresh air and the perfect person for this role.
The story by Diablo Cody is both painfully familiar and fresh. Rarely does the camera’s lens peer inside an average family’s home and Cody’s script pulls no punches in making this family mundane and unappealing. The constant demands of the new baby isn’t the most exciting story to put on film but Cody also manages to find small pockets of humor in the unending demands of life. Throwing in the added pressure of a special-needs child cranks up the heat on an already simmering pressure cooker. There isn’t much else that could be added to the mix that won’t cause the whole house to explode. The arrival of Tully and her calming influence on an initially skeptical Marlo is the release valve that keeps this situation from blowing up.
It all seems like a perfect bit of upper middle-class white privilege; but Cody is too good a writer to leave well enough alone. The film takes an unexpected turn late that practically knocked me out of my seat. Looking back there are signs and clues for what is to come but Cody buries and camouflages them in commonplace and everyday events. When the turn happens it makes for a truly shocking bit of storytelling. While I’m handing out Oscar nominations, let’s give one to Diablo Cody for best original screenplay.
“Tully” is rated R for some sexuality/nudity and language. Most of the sexuality comes from Marlo watching episodes of Showtime’s “Gigolos” where we see a couple having sex on the screen. We also get a couple of looks at a woman’s bare nipple as she prepares to breast feed. Foul language is common.
“Tully” is a nice break from superheroes and special effect-heavy blockbusters. It is a slice of life film that takes its time in telling a story of average people dealing with the common challenges of parenthood. It has great performances and a compelling story that takes a zig when most would expect a zag. It is a movie mothers will understand on a cellular level and will, I believe, enjoy.
“Tully” gets five stars.
This week I’ll be reviewing “Life of the Party” for WIMZ.com.
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