Ever wonder if the human capacity for ironic humor evolved as a mechanism for coping with otherwise-unbearable stress and trauma? Many readers will nod their heads sagely upon reading this, thinking of how the graveyard yuk has served that function in their own lives. It often helps us get through another day that doesn’t bear thinking about. But its efficacy also has its limits.
One of the first things that audiences will notice (and find likable) about Marlo (Charlize Theron), the very pregnant protagonist we meet in the first reel of Tully – the latest clever collaboration between director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody – is that ability to defang harsh realizations with a dose of snark. She may be a stereotypical white suburban mom who has settled for a settled life, an unchallenging career and an amiable-but-unengaged husband, but she’s clearly whip-smart. With the demands of another infant imminent, she’s also feeling overwhelmed.
New motherhood, even with only one child, is always a more complex and difficult challenge than our culture is typically willing to admit. We go on to make jokes about those days when finding the time or energy to take a shower seemed like the Holy Grail. Bigger families are reliable grist for heartwarming situation comedy on the page and onscreen: Think of jolly clans like those in Cheaper by the Dozen, Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, The Brady Bunch, where the stuff of madness and dysfunction gets bowdlerized into mere wholesome wackiness. They set an unattainable social bar, and we secretly berate ourselves for all the times when we as parents fall short.
Embarking on her maternity leave from a job that we never actually see, Marlo is already having difficulty coping with the special needs of her kindergartner Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica), who has some sort of unnamed autism-spectrum disorder that makes him hypersensitive to certain noises and prone to relentless tantrums. Marlo has several confrontations with the principal (Gameela Wright) at the kids’ private school (jokily called St. Vitus’) about his “quirkiness” and inability to fit in. Jonah’s older sister Sarah (Lia Frankland) is easier, but in peril of becoming the “overlooked” kid. Meanwhile, husband Drew (Ron Livingston) has a job that keeps him away from home for long periods, and, while well-intentioned and doing his part with overseeing the kids’ homework, he’s clueless about the daily strain and drain that Marlo is undergoing – especially once baby Mia is born.
To this reviewer’s knowledge, there has never been a mainstream movie like Tully, in terms of its ferocious honesty about the exhaustion, unrelenting messiness and terrifying sense of isolation of new motherhood. If you’ve been there, you’ll be grateful to see the postpartum ordeal depicted so grittily and grungily. The film still manages to qualify as a comedy, but without glossing anything over with unearned cuteness.
Fortunately, Marlo is privileged to have a brother, Craig (Mark Duplass), who has attained considerably more financial success than she and Drew have. That makes for some awkward moments at a family dinner, where every aspect of Craig’s apparently perfect home life (the depiction of which is overloaded with corny upscale-Brooklyn-hipster jokes and falls flattest of any scene in the movie) reinforces Margo’s sense of inadequacy. Her brother can see how frazzled she is, though, and offers to pay for the services of a “night nanny” to help his sister navigate the coming storm of a wailing infant.
Aghast at the suggestion at first, Marlo relents and fishes in her handbag for the nanny’s business card after a particularly bad meltdown outside Jonah’s school. That’s when we meet the title character (Mackenzie Davis), an empathetic, wise-beyond-her-26-years boho free spirit who takes baby matters in hand with total aplomb and allows Marlo to catch up on some desperately needed sleep, waking her only to breastfeed. Before long the house is miraculously straightened up, decorated cupcakes are ready for Jonah to take to school and Mom is starting to wear makeup again – and wondering how to rekindle some sparks with Drew. More importantly, Tully provides a ready ear, sound advice about self-care and a sense of powerful female friendship. Theron and Davis have astonishing (and absolutely necessary, narrativewise) chemistry together.
It’s at this point that the audience will wonder if Tully is poised to head down the “deranged killer nanny” genre route. This is not that kind of movie, although it doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to being disturbing. Nor should you dismiss it in advance as a bourgeois fairytale about how nice life can be for those who can afford paid help. To say more about what kind of movie it really is, or what other movie it’ll ultimately remind you of, would be to give away far too much. Suffice it to say that the twist ending is the well-earned sort that will make you want to go back and see Tully a second time to spot the clues you might’ve missed.