Tully, the third collaboration between screenwriter Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman (and their second to star Charlize Theron), may be one of the most honest depictions of middle class motherhood ever committed to film.
When we first meet Theron’s Marlo she is very pregnant and completely wiped out. She already has two young children—a boy and a girl—and to complicate matters, her panic-attack prone son, Jonah, seems to be somewhere on the spectrum, although his actual condition is undiagnosed (teachers euphemistically call him “quirky”). As for her easygoing husband Drew (Ron Livingston), he helps around the house, but not really?
Honestly, I’ve met this guy before—the one who helps the kids with their homework, occasionally does the dishes, and thinks he’s some sort of hero. Mind you, Drew isn’t depicted as a bad guy—more lovably clueless. It’s Marlo who cleaves to the kind of patriarchal values that allow Drew to lie in bed and play video games while she breast feeds the baby. So yes, the baby comes—spoiler alert, it’s a girl!—and Marlo is even more exhausted, waking up several times at night to pump her breasts and breastfeed. It’s at this point that she reluctantly agrees to take up her wealthy brother (Mark Duplass) on his offer to get her a “night nanny”—i.e., a nanny who spends the night, cares for the baby, and allows Marlo to get some much-needed sleep.
A few nights later, there’s a knock on the door and voila, it’s Tully (Mackenzie Davis), looking like she just left Coachella in a half-shirt with pink tips in her hair—beautiful, carefree, and naturally nurturing. She mothers not just the new baby, but Marlo herself—and soon enough, Marlo has more energy, and is doing things like cooking proper dinners for her family (as opposed to the frozen pizza and bowl of frozen broccoli we see her serving earlier in the film) and staying up to have girl-talk with Tully.
At first I thought, Wait, the moral of the story is: Be rich, get a preternaturally competent night nanny, and all your problems will be solved? But Tully is much slyer and more interesting than that. As always, Cody is mining the choices and sacrifices that women make—and the old selves we leave behind to become wives and mothers. Motherhood is, in a way, a shedding of self—of your old body, your old freedom, your old dreams—but Cody suggests it’s worth the sacrifice.
I should add that, although Tully deals with serious themes, it’s devilishly funny (in one glorious montage, Marlo tips over a container of breast milk and drops a cell phone on her baby’s head). And all hail Charlize Theron, who gives a vanity-free, deeply poignant performance as Marlo. (Remember, this is the same woman who convincingly played a glamazon assassin just a few months ago in Atomic Blonde.) All I can say is, may Theron and Cody continue to make witty and whipsmart films about complicated, flawed, and deeply relatable women going forward. Oh yeah, and that Reitman guy can come, too.