In order to discuss the meat of this film, there will be spoilers.
In 2007 Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman released Juno—an indie look at teen pregnancy with a killer soundtrack. Their next outing together was in 2011 and starred Charlize Theron in Young Adult—a forgettable film about an author attempting to home-wreck. Seven years later Cody, Reitman, and Theron are back with 2018's Tully—an exploration of the beautiful and ugly side of motherhood. With tight dialogue, strong performances, and boldness from all parties involved, Tully succeeds as a realistic dive into complacency, stagnancy, and parenthood in a modern society.
Charlize Theron's performance as Marlo makes Tully as good as it is. She is a mess as a mother, wife, and person in general. Theron takes a role, which is often idealized and angelic, and turns the role into something grounded and authentic. One scene in particular worth mentioning is when Marlo has an altercation with the principal (Gameela Wright) of her son's (Asher Miles Fallica) school. In this scene Theron showcases her full range as the character. She is disheveled and exhausted, but attempts to remain calm and civil. Finally, something snaps, and she unleashes a mother's ferocity on Principal Laurie, while begging for honesty. Theron does not overdo it by one massive explosion, but instead presents her anger in bursts throughout the scene. She knows when to give more and when to pull it back, making for a scene full of boiled-over authenticity. Scenes as that demonstrate the confidence Theron brings to the role.
Confidence is also present with the writer and director duo of Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman, respectively. For starters they have enough confidence to release a low-key drama/comedy film in the first week of May, following Avengers: Infinity War and preceding Deadpool 2 on the 18th. Why try to compete? Because Tully is something different, something fresh. Cody and Reitman are giving the nitty-gritty side of marriage and motherhood. They are not saying adult life is detestable; they are saying adult life is difficult in particular for a middle-class mother attempting to keep up with the Joneses. What Cody has done is provide juxtaposition between gender, economic class, and age by demonstrating the differences between Marlo and her husband, her brother, and Tully. Cody's dialogue elevates the actor's performances. When Marlo is visiting her rich brother Craig (Mark Duplass), Craig is excited to show off his new bar. Marlo immediately takes a dig at him to which he warmly responds telling her to shut-up. From there the dialogue builds naturally to the conversation regarding the night nanny. Much of the dialogue goes that way. Cody starts small and allows conversations to unfold. Reitman does the same with the scenes. As a scene appears to be ending, Reitman will let it linger longer, leaving the audience uncomfortable with awkwardness. Marlo and her husband Drew (Ron Livingston) feel inadequate to Craig and his wife Elyse (Elaine Tan). Reitman establishes the inadequacy during a dinner scene filled with revealing conversation and uncomfortable silences.
Duplass and Tan play a rich, eccentric couple who are at times over-the-top and oblivious, but never become arrogant or obnoxious. Duplass uses a large, creepy smile to show his enthusiasm for his position in life. Tan goes for a quiet, minimalistic approach to demonstrate her class and comfortableness, often skipping over what people say to avoid tension. Livingston portrays a typical, overworked husband who does not spend enough time taking care of his wife. His performance is detached, and he is more or less fodder. The standout supporting cast member is Mackenzie Davis who plays Tully—the wise, insightful, free-spirit night nanny. Davis also shows confidence with this role; her character calls for it, and she exudes it through subtle bits of comedy and authoritativeness. Once she arrives onscreen she takes control of the situation, often acting as the foil and inspiration for Marlo. That being said, the Tully twist is the biggest problem with this movie.
Throughout the film, there is an eerie sense of similarity between Tully and Marlo. As the picture progresses, the similarities begin to add up. At the end it is revealed that Tully does not exist in a corporeal sense. Tully is Marlo's younger self (Tully is Marlo's maiden name) who has come back as a part of Marlo's nervous breakdown. There are plenty of hints throughout the film, so the problem does not come from the twist itself. Instead the problem is how the twist is handled. After an accident, a doctor walks up to Drew and asks if she has had a history of mental illness. But why? As an audience member there is no indication that the doctor witnessed Marlo talking to herself or even mentions Tully to the physician, so why does she bring that point up? From the outside it looks as though Marlo got into a drunk driving accident. Drew replies to Dr. Smythe stating, no, but she did have a bit of depression after her last child. And that is it. No repercussions from the drunk driving nor the supposed mental illness, and no explanation to the husband why the doctor believes Marlo might be mentally ill. Marlo says goodbye to Tully, Drew apologizes for being an absentee husband, and the film ends. It felt as though it needed a resolution after the journey.
Tully is clever in its execution. Even the poster for the movie has more to it beneath the surface. Upon first glance the poster appears to be a close up of a zoned-out Charlize Theron. But after watching the movie, the poster details everything. The pizza is a reference to Marlo making frozen dinners; the stroller and blocks are a reference to the children; the mermaid is a reference to the surreal visions Marlo has throughout the movie, which are later revealed to be her drowning; cupcakes are a reference to Marlo wanting to keep up with the other moms who make Minion cupcakes; the microphone references Marlo and her daughter singing karaoke together; and the bike refers to the ending of the film when Marlo and Tully steal bikes and ride through the city. Even the tagline is clever, "see how the mother half lives," directly speaks to the idea that Tully is past Marlo. Tully gets to see how her life will turn out. And lastly the title of the film and how it is placed on the poster immediately tells audiences that Charlize Theron is Tully. The name is on her face, so it must be her character. Brilliant design.
Through strong performances from the supporting cast and the lead, Tully shines. Cody and Reitman together add a sense of realism to a story about real world struggles. Tully succeeds by being an intimate look at how you might love your kids and spouse, but you do not necessarily like them all the time. Theron gives an award-deserving performance, and Cody delivers a (mostly) well developed script. Even though the ending has flaws to it, Tully demonstrates the ups and downs for safe familiarity and the struggles it takes to retain normalcy through both the team in front of the camera, and the team behind it.